"A very readable and provocative tale of early Franco-American relations that will please some and infuriate others."—John Buchanan, author of The Road to Valley Forge: How Washington Built the Army That Won the Revolution
"Harlow Unger has written an amazing tour de force revealing France's two-faced role in the American Revolution and the early Republic. The book also has enormous relevance for contemporary politics. Don't miss it."—Thomas Fleming, author of Liberty!: The American Revolution
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About the Author
A veteran journalist, broadcaster, educator, and historian, Harlow Giles Unger is a former Distinguished Visiting Fellow in American History at Mount Vernon and is the author of sixteen books, including five other biographies of America’s Founding Fathers. He lives in New York.
Read an Excerpt
The French War Against America
By Harlow Gilles Unger
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-471-65113-3
Chapter OneThe War in the Wilderness
* * *
French king Louis XV was feeding his insatiable sexual appetite with one of his mistresses when word of a great French victory in the North American wilderness reached the royal bedchamber. Without interrupting his exertions, he grunted his approval and sent the bearer of the news scurrying away through a maze of gilded halls and antechambers to an office in a mysterious apartment of the sprawling palace at Versailles.
Le Secret du Roi, as the office was called, was the hub of a far-reaching network of spies the king had established in 1748 as a personal instrument for controlling national affairs after the War of the Austrian Succession. Eight years of inconclusive fighting had ended with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which sent all combatants behind their original borders-but Louis had no intention of remaining there-and saw no reason for doing so.
"The French king is master and arbiter of Europe," his mentor, Cardinal Fleury, had told him when he was but an infant prince-a time when his great-grandfather Louis XIV, the Sun King, still ruled. "Our neighbors have everything to fear from us-we nothing from them.... The diplomatic object of this crown has been and will always be to enjoy in Europe that role of leadership which accords with antiquity, its worth and its greatness; to abase every power which shall attemptto become superior to it, whether by endeavoring to usurp its possessions, or by arrogating to itself an unwarranted preeminence, or finally by seeking to diminish its influence and credit in the affairs of the world at large."
To identify those who sought to diminish Louis's influence, le Secret du Roi sent spies everywhere, in and out of the palace, under and into every bed, to every table, and into every council chamber from St. Petersburg to London. Their reports told Louis what every friend and enemy of France was planning before they had even planned it. The reports generated rewards for loyalty to the French state and retribution for disloyalty and provided the king with the omniscience that sustained the omnipotence God had granted him and other French kings more than twelve centuries earlier.
Although he had succeeded the legendary Louis XIV, the latter had reigned so long-from 1643 to 1715-that his son and grandson died before him and left his five-year-old great-grandson as successor and heir to the world's greatest empire, stretching east across India and west across North America. A regent governed the empire until Louis XV reached the age of majority, but with little interest in royal responsibilities, he set out to discover the pleasures of bed and board-with emphasis on the former.
In the interest of royal succession, the regent arranged the king's marriage to the Polish king's twenty-one-year-old daughter when Louis was only fifteen. Louis couldn't stand the sight of her and limited his visits to brief encounters that kept her in labor most of the time, producing a procession of princesses in her apartment, while he labored in his apartment with an endless procession of mistresses. Collectively, they earned him the often misinterpreted sobriquet of "Louis le Bien-Aime" -Louis the beloved.
The motives for that love varied. Some women offered him their bodies to win titles or influence for themselves or their families; others went to the king's bed by order of their husbands or sons seeking profitable land grants, government contracts, or other favors; still others-like Jeanne d'Arc-heard the voice of God commanding them to the arms of the king "crowned by God." But their motives meant little: when a woman or girl caught the king's eye, neither she, her parents, nor her husband dared reject the blessing of a royal command. And off she went to the king's bedchamber, where her pleas, tears, or shrieks of pain only excited the king's lust.
He was "a mindless man without a soul, without feeling," said the duc de Choiseul, who would serve Louis as foreign minister for twelve years. "He loved hurting [people] the way children love to make animals suffer ... he enjoyed making [them] suffer whenever he could; I don't think anyone who ever knew him ever saw him show any benevolence since the day he was born."
"If she's pretty and I like her looks," snapped the king, "I say that I want her, and that ends it!"
During his early years on the throne, he left administrative duties to his mentor and surrogate father, Cardinal Fleury. Fleury died in 1743, just as the beautiful twenty-two-year-old Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, daughter of a minor bourgeois financier, captured the king's heart, mind, and body. A star of influential Paris social salons, she had married a merchant king who made the mistake of presenting her at Versailles. Louis snatched her from her husband, showed her to the royal bed chamber, and, two years later, ennobled her as marquise de Pompadour-the name of a manor the king bought for her. He was so taken with his new lady, he created a new title for her-maitresse en titre (official royal mistress)-and ensconced her in her new office at a formal court presentation that gave her a standing and power never before accorded to royal mistresses. It was, said Choiseul "a scandalous presentation ... that violated every rule of dignity and morality. Sovereign princes by nature almost always represent a lower form of life than the rest of mankind, but, of all European princes, the French Bourbons rank as the lowest and most despicable."
By default, Pompadour became the king's prime minister. He enjoyed nothing more than riding to hunt at Marly, a palatial hunting lodge between Versailles and Paris, and happily left Pompadour to manage palace politics. She set about reshaping the realm, ruthlessly disgracing any woman who tried to replace her in the king's esteem and elevating to power men who submitted to her political and sexual demands. Neither the king nor his mistress saw fissures forming in the structure of the great empire that stretched across the earth beyond the palace gates.
The French military machine held most of continental Europe in thrall; powerful French armies had secured the wealth of India and West Africa's lucrative slave and ivory trades; and in North America, New France (La Nouvelle France) stretched across a vast expanse from the Atlantic coast of Canada to the Rocky Mountains, from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico. Fur trader Samuel de Champlain had become "Father of New France" in 1608, when he claimed eastern Canada for France. Twenty years later, Cardinal Richelieu, who governed France as prime minister for the shy and sickly King Louis XIII, lusted to find as much gold and silver in Canada as the Spanish had in Mexico. He organized the Compagnie de la Nouvelle-France (the Company of New France) with one hundred shareholders from the oligarchy of landed aristocrats who controlled the nation's wealth and wielded power from palace corridors behind the throne room. Also called the Cent Associes (One Hundred Associates), or Cent Familles (One Hundred Families), they sent French adventurer Rene-Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle to penetrate the North American heartland in the 1670s.
After exploring the shores of the Great Lakes, La Salle traveled the length of the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi rivers, and on April 9, 1682, he reached the Gulf of Mexico. He found no gold or silver but invoked the so-called law of discovery by planting a post in the ground bearing the arms of France and proclaiming King Louis XIV sovereign over "Louisiana and all the lands watered by its rivers and tributaries ... [including] the seas, harbors, ports, bays, adjacent straits, and all the nations, people, provinces, cities, towns, villages, mines, minerals, fisheries, streams and rivers comprised in the extent of said Louisiana [italics added]." Barren of precious ores, however, and far from the Atlantic, Louisiana attracted few French settlers, although a few trappers and fur traders roamed as far west as the Rocky Mountains.
In contrast, most British colonists came to North America to settle. Although British territory was limited to a pathetically narrow strip of coastal land on the Atlantic Ocean-about one hundred miles wide and nine hundred miles long-the English king and Board of Trade allowed anyone to call the land his own if he cleared, planted, and drove four stakes in the ground to mark the corners. By the early 1700s, 400,000 English colonists had flocked to North America, compared to only 18,000 French, and by midcentury, the English had burst the boundaries of their settlements and pushed westward into the wilderness-and into inevitable conflict with their ancient European enemies, the French. Too few to repel the British, the French dispensed a mixture of artful rhetoric, brandy, and promises of fresh human scalps to enlist Indian warriors to their side.
"The difference between the king of England and the king of France is evident everywhere," French governor Ange de Menneville Du Quesne harangued the Indians. "Go see the forts of our king and you will see that you can still hunt under their very walls.... The English, on the other hand, drive away the game. The forest falls before them as they advance, and the soil laid bare so that you can scarce find the wherewithal to build a shelter for the night." 6
Emboldened by brandy and thirsting for blood, the Indians followed the French on barbarous raids on English frontier settlements, burning, slaughtering, and scalping while the French harvested furs from the storehouses of their hapless victims. The frequency and devastation of raids exploded into frontier wars whose intensity and savagery exhausted and bankrupted both sides. In 1748, the British and French ended the fighting and returned behind prewar boundaries-except in the undefined Ohio River valley and the lands between the Appalachian Mountains and Mississippi River.
Although La Salle had claimed the territory for France under the "law of discovery" a century earlier, the British called the law-and the claim-absurd. With the 1748 cease-fire, therefore, British trappers and traders crossed the Appalachians into the disputed wilderness, fished and hunted with abandon, and raised a settlement at Logstown, about one hundred miles south of Lake Erie, where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio.
Early in 1749, English king George II claimed the territory for Britain and granted 200,000 acres near Logstown to the Ohio Company, a speculative venture of Virginia plantation owners led by Thomas Lee and Lawrence Washington. Washington and his partners envisioned hauling furs over the Appalachians to the upper reaches of the Potomac and floating them downstream to Chesapeake Bay for shipment to England. The route would halve the time the French needed to carry furs across the Great Lakes and down the St. Lawrence River. King George promised Ohio Company investors 300,000 additional acres if they succeeded.
In November 1749, Lawrence Washington sent his trusted younger half-brother, George, with a team of surveyors to map company lands. The Washingtons were great-grandsons of "Colonel" John Washington, who arrived in America from England in 1657 to cash in on the craze for American sweet tobacco. Virginia's John Rolfe had developed a curing method that sharply reduced spoilage on Atlantic crossings and made tobacco so profitable that Virginia townsmen planted it in the streets to extract every penny from the rich Virginia soil.
After four years, though, tobacco exhausted soil nutrients; the land had to lie fallow for twenty years to recover. Rather than wait, planters moved west onto virgin lands that teemed with game, offered a wealth in furs, and made land speculation a passion for every plantation owner. By the time George Washington was born, his family had accumulated 12,000 acres on the northernmost Virginia cape and was firmly entrenched in the Virginia "aristocracy." Unlike European aristocrats, who inherited or purchased their noble status, Virginia's aristocracy worked their way to wealth and power as daring entrepreneurs, risking life and limb on treacherous Atlantic crossings and plunging into the American wilderness to create the world's largest, most productive plantations. Their wealth and vast properties raised them to community leadership as sheriffs, legislators, and militia officers.
Although Washington's father died when George was only eleven, his twenty-five-year-old half-brother, Lawrence, took on the task of raising and educating the boy. A daring horseman and former officer in the British marines, Lawrence had received a brilliant education in England and passed it on to his young half-brother. By the time George was sixteen, he had mastered most academic skills and social graces. In addition to literature, geography, history, and advanced mathematics, he learned law, business, and surveying, all of which were essential to men of property. More than six feet tall by then, he displayed a thoughtful, kindly personality that belied his enormous physical strength. Galloping after Lawrence over the Virginia hills, George grew into a superior horseman and expert marksman, and he developed a keen eye for spotting not only the secret lairs of game but the potential value of undeveloped lands. By the time he approached twenty-one, he had earned commissions for nearly two hundred surveys-and renown for his ability to identify potential travel routes, prospective town sites, and natural resources. In 1749, his brother sent him west to survey Ohio Company lands. To the French, the Ohio Company was both an economic and military threat. English settlements in the Ohio valley would not only capture part of the French fur trade, they would sever Louisiana from Canada and hamper French military and trade operations. To halt British incursions, the French began building forts along a north-south axis from northern Michigan to Illinois and down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. In 1754, Canadian governor Du Quesne sent 1,500 French troops to Fort Niagara to occupy the southern shore of Lake Erie and seize British settlers as hostages. Three French forts sprang up at twenty-five-mile intervals from Lake Erie south to Venango, on the banks of the Allegheny River. From Venango, the troops marched to Logstown (now Pittsburgh) and burned it to the ground.
Enraged by French atrocities, Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie dispatched George Washington-by then a frontier-wise twenty-year-old major in the Virginia militia-to warn the French to release English prisoners and withdraw-and provide restitution to Logstown property owners-or face war. Along the way, he learned that three Indian nations had allied themselves with the French; he countered by befriending an Oneida chief with the unlikely name of Half-King, who pledged allegiance to the English because the French had "killed, boiled and eaten his father."
Washington finally met the French at Venango, where the officers in charge graciously shared their table before summarily rejecting Governor Dunwiddie's ultimatum. La Salle, they insisted, had claimed the territory for France "in the name of God," before any Englishman had set foot on its soil.
After Washington returned to Virginia, the governor called an emergency session of the colonial assembly, or House of Burgesses, to report an army of French and Indians advancing to the Ohio River to "build more fortresses." He asked the burgesses to raise six companies of militiamen at a cost of £10,000 to expel the French from the Ohio valley. The burgesses howled in protest that he and Washington had contrived "a fiction and a scheme to promote the interest of ... [their own] private company." Nonetheless, the governor prevailed, winning pledges of financial or military aid from Virginia and subsequently five other states. New York, Maryland, and North Carolina promised 550 troops; Pennsylvania pledged £10,000 to finance the expedition. Massachusetts governor William Shirley said he would lead 600 militiamen to eastern Canada to force the French to fight on two fronts.
Excerpted from The French War Against America by Harlow Gilles Unger Excerpted by permission.
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