Americans today have a love/hate relationship with France, but in How the French Saved America Tom Shachtman shows that without France, there might not be a United States of America.
To the rebelling colonies, French assistance made the difference between looming defeat and eventual triumph. Even before the Declaration of Independence was issued, King Louis XVI and French foreign minister Vergennes were aiding the rebels. After the Declaration, that assistance broadened to include wages for our troops; guns, cannon, and ammunition; engineering expertise that enabled victories and prevented defeats; diplomatic recognition; safe havens for privateers; battlefield leadership by veteran officers; and the army and fleet that made possible the Franco-American victory at Yorktown.
Nearly ten percent of those who fought and died for the American cause were French. Those who fought and survived, in addition to the well-known Lafayette and Rochambeau, include François de Fleury, who won a Congressional Medal for valor, Louis Duportail, who founded the Army Corps of Engineers, and Admiral de Grasse, whose sea victory sealed the fate of Yorktown.
This illuminating narrative history vividly captures the outsize characters of our European brothers, their battlefield and diplomatic bonds and clashes with Americans, and the monumental role they played in America’s fight for independence and democracy.
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About the Author
Tom Shachtman is an author, filmmaker, and educator. He has written or co-authored more than thirty books, including Rumspringa, Airlift to America, and Terrors and Marvels, as well documentaries for ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS, and has taught at major universities. Publishers Weekly lauded his book Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish as "not only one of the most absorbing books ever written about the Plain People, but a perceptive snapshot of the larger culture in which they live and move." He has written articles for The New York Times, Newsday, Smithsonian, and environmental monthlies, and writes a column for The Lakeville Journal (CT). A two-hour television documentary based on his book Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold was broadcast on PBS in February 2008.
Read an Excerpt
"The true science of a sovereign"
— Louis XVI
In Philadelphia, even before the close of 1775 the Committee of Secret Correspondence received verification of Bonvouloir's contention that supplies could readily be obtained from France. Two French export-import traders showed up on Congress's doorstep wanting to provide those supplies and bearing introductions from merchants in Rhode Island and from Washington, to whom after meeting they had sent "two bottles of the Ratifia of Grenoble, three of fruit preserved in Brandy, one dozen of oranges and fifty Small Loaves of Sugar."
Such gifts the traders may have deemed necessary because they were aware that Americans didn't like the French. A dozen years after the close of the French and Indian War, Americans retained a strong residual fear of and distaste for all things Gallic. Washington and some of his current top commanders had served with the British against the French in that war, and none had been able to forget how the French had repeatedly urged their Native American allies to commit savage acts on American settlers, and engendered a fear of their forcibly converting all of New England's Protestants to Catholicism.
Even as Catholicism's grip on the governance of France loosened, Americans continued to demonize the religion and its adherents. In 1773 a friend and correspondent of Franklin's, the Congregationalist reverend Samuel Cooper, gave the annual endowed lecture at the Brattle Street Church in Boston on the "tyranny, usurpation, fatal errors, abominable superstitions, and other crying wickedness" of the Catholic Church. In June 1774 many Americans railed against Britain's recently passed Quebec Act, which struck down the requirement that Canada's Catholics pledge allegiance to Protestantism and restored French civil law throughout a territory extending a thousand miles along the upper Midwest, a measure seen as enabling the spread of Catholicism to the detriment of Protestantism. A scholar of religion in that period, Michael S. Carter, writes that to New England Protestants in 1775, Catholicism was less a religion than "a form of spiritual and intellectual 'slavery' and that was the antithesis of their free, rational, and pure religion." Another scholar, Glenn Moots, suggests that "anti-Catholic rhetoric was more about politics than it was about theology," since Catholicism was equated with encouraging tyrannical rule.
Contributing to Americans' unease about the French were the works of French intellectuals regarding the New World. While Jean-Jacques Rousseau's essays celebrated enlightened Quakers and imagined "noble savages," most of his fellow philosophes literally dismissed Americans as lower forms of human life. The world's preeminent naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, a man so exalted by contemporaries that painters depicted him in one-on-one conversations with Mother Nature, fulminated about the "degeneracy" of the flora, fauna, and geographic features of the New World, even though he, like Rousseau and virtually all others who wrote on America prior to the Revolution, had never visited the place. Buffon opined that the sexual apparatus of Native American males was "enfeebled" to the point of their being incapable of true love for females, and therefore unable to generate family feeling, civilization, or culture. In a popular European book a follower of Buffon derided all that had occurred upon the North American continent since the flood in Noah's time, titling one section of his work, "The Americans' Moronic Spirit." Another influential book, on the "two Indies," East and West, by the Abbé Guillaume Thomas François Raynal, published in 1770 and in many subsequent editions and translations, contained the ultimate put-down of Americans:
It is amazing that America has not yet produced a good poet, a capable mathematician, or a man of genius in a single art or a single science. Almost all have some facility in everything, but none has a marked talent for anything. Precocious and mature before us, they are far behind when we have reached our full mental development.
But Raynal hoped the Americans would soon catch up. Having meticulously identified all tyrannies, slavery, and exploitations of people around the globe, the elderly scholar had become enthusiastic about America's promise, as had Buffon, who underwrote the first French translation of Franklin's Experiments and Observations Touching on Electricity. The philosophes marveled over Franklin, who visited France in the 1760s, and over such translated works as Dickinson's Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, and increasingly believed that America would be where Enlightenment ideals of toleration and personal fulfillment could brighten the lives of the vast majority of citizens. These thinkers agreed with the semiofficial Gazette de France, which proclaimed that in America "an innate taste for liberty is inseparable from the soil, the sky, the forests and the lakes which keep this vast and still new country from resembling other parts of the globe," and warned that Europeans transported there soon developed the same taste.
As America's Revolutionary War began, what appealed to the literate elite of France, and through their works to the nine-tenths of all French who were oppressed by their own ruler, were the rising American principles of "no taxation without representation," equality of citizens rich and poor before the law, the nurturing of an educated citizenry, and the sense of citizens no longer willing to be treated as second-class human beings. François-Jean de Chastellux, a literary lion who was also a senior military officer thrilled to the idea of the vast American continent being peopled "under the auspices of liberty and reason, by men who make equality the principle of their conduct and agriculture the principle of their economy." And Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, a philosophe-économiste, on becoming comptroller general of France wrote to Louis XVI in terms that echoed the Americans' resistance to unfairness: "It is necessary, Sire ... to consider whence comes to you the money which you are able to distribute among your courtiers, and to compare the misery of those from whom it has to be extracted ... with the situation of the class of persons who push their claims on your liberality."
The philosophes' growing excitement about America coincided with a rapid decline in their estimation of Great Britain, whose steps toward democracy they had once applauded but that no longer seemed to have the welfare of the people at heart. The American colonists' resistance to Great Britain seemed principled and heroic. So did the feats of their Continental army, composed, as the French believed the ancient Roman army to have been, of citizen-soldiers distinguished by enthusiasm and patriotism.
For more than a decade French reconnaissance reports had fueled the notion of the mutual interests of France and the potentially rebellious British colonies. In a memorandum written before the ink was dry on the 1763 Treaty of Paris, a semiofficial French visitor to America noted Virginians becoming weary of Great Britain's tobacco monopoly, which had shrunk their incomes, and Quakers in Philadelphia and Puritans in New England being increasingly restive about trade constraints. The next year a naval lieutenant visitor filed a similar report. A third report, in 1765, cited dinner-table chatter in Baltimore at which "there was something said about taking up arms, that if the Americans took it in hand, they were able to cope with Britain in America." The report continued:
This country [the British colonies of North America] can not be long subject to Great Britain nor indeed to any distant power, its extent is so great, the daily increase of its inhabitants so considerable, and having everything necessary within themselves for (more than) their own defence, that no nation whatsoever seemed better calculated for independency, and the inhabitants are already entirely disposed thereto and talk of nothing more than it.
In the three-year interim between that visit and the one by the last of the French semiofficial pre-Revolutionary observers in 1768, rapid changes occurred in America. In the wake of the Seven Years' War, the American colonies had flourished beyond the expectations of their British masters, becoming so widely profitable as to enable a considerable pay-down of their share of the debt from that war. Such colonial productivity had spurred the British to greed, as codified in the 1765 Stamp Act and the 1767 Townshend Acts. These added to the Americans' debt repayment burden and introduced the obligation to cover the expenses of quartering of British troops on American soil and the salaries of British colonial governors and judges whose main task was to enforce the new taxes. All this had considerably angered Americans by the time of the arrival of the French army veteran Baron de Kalb.
Johann de Robais, the Baron de Kalb, forty-seven, was an ideal choice for this reconnaissance. He had a keen eye for military strengths and vulnerabilities, but also could readily pass as a German officer, having grown up in Bavaria. He had served for decades with the French army and had close ties to the soldier and diplomat Charles-François de Broglie. De Kalb was such a large and robust man that colleagues referred to him as a giant. Choiseul, then the foreign minister, had given him precise instructions for his American visit, such as to "acquaint himself with the greater or lesser strength of the [colonists'] purpose to withdraw from the British government," as well as their resources to do so and willingness to accept French assistance.
De Kalb's reports to Choiseul in 1768 rejected myths about theAmericans then circulating in Paris, such as that the British had soothed their unrest by repeal of the Stamp Act. The truth was just the opposite, he reported; the repeal had demonstrated to the colonies that their "value to the mother country is their best safeguard against any violation of their real or imagined privileges." De Kalb's conclusion: "The present condition of the colonies is not such as to enable them to repel force by force, [and an alliance with a foreign power] would appear to them to be fraught with danger to their liberties."
That was not the message Choiseul had sought, having told Louis XV that an uprising by the British colonies was imminent, and he did not respond to this or other de Kalb letters. The baron continued to ply him with hundreds of clippings from American and British papers, but to no avail.
After Choiseul was dismissed in 1770, his replacement proved to be much less of an Anglophobe, as evident from a March 1774 note to George III from Louis XV, saying that Louis approved of the "more vigorous policies ... to bring the [American] colonies back to obedience. ... His Britannic Majesty ... has for too long a time been needlessly wearing himself out by seeking to use means of sweetness and reconciliation." Louis XV's death two months later, and the ascension to the throne of his grandson, Louis-Auguste, transformed the French political, economic, and social landscape in many ways — among them, France's willingness to become involved in the increasingly contentious affairs of Britain's American colonies.
Born in 1754, the second son of the Dauphin, Louis-Auguste upon the death of his older brother in 1761 became second in line for the eventual throne; then, in 1765, upon the death of his father, he became the heir apparent. Two years later his mother died, which left the thirteen-year-old an orphan whose main influence was his grandfather, a sybarite, reprobate, spendthrift, an arbitrary and secretive ruler, and the loser of a costly and humiliating war. The teenager was bright enough and hale, but fleshy, unappealing, and shy especially around women, and not in the least martial-spirited as were his younger brothers. A studious boy, he developed a liking for maps, including astronomical ones, and also learned English well enough to get through David Hume's sixvolume History of England. "Never let people read your mind," his French confessor taught, and Louis-Auguste agreed, becoming habitually so reserved that his silence in response to questions was taken for stupidity, although it was often a refusal to commit until he had a firm grasp on the proper answer. At fifteen Louis-Auguste was married to Marie Antoinette, the fourteen-year-old daughter of the most powerful woman in Europe, the Hapsburg empress Maria Theresa. The underage newlyweds were initially kept from cohabiting by chaperones and later by their own sexual ineptness and apparent disinclination, which prevented consummation of the marriage.
All of that had occurred when, in the spring of 1774, Louis XV, who at sixty-four had appeared relatively healthy, fell violently ill with smallpox and died within ten days. In his youth he had been called "Louis le bien aimé" (Louis the Beloved), but by the time of his death he was hated. Many years later, Count Louis-Philippe de Ségur would recall that the closing phase of the reign had been "obscured by inglorious idleness, "adding that the king's "indolence and weakness allowed all the springs of the state to unwind. Power was still arbitrary, and yet authority lost its influence. ... We did not possess liberty but license."
The new king vowed in private to become "Louis le sévère." His strictness, a reflection of his morality, surfaced in his refusal to plunge into the frivolity, luxury, and decadence of the court, choosing instead to devote himself to public affairs. He wished to understand popular opinion and, insofar as possible, to go along with it. A month after he took the throne, Parisians worried whether he was up to the job and contributed a new graffito to the base of the statue of the long-dead king Henri IV, on Paris's Pont Neuf: "Resurrexit." But if Louis brought to the throne a reluctance to quick action, he also brought the sort of staunch moral ethic that he felt had been absent from foreign affairs for decades.
To select his ministers Louis had two lists of prospects, one from the queen and one left by his late father. Marie Antoinette's roster consisted mainly of experienced, practical men such as Choiseul who were partial to the cause of her Austrian family. The Dauphin's, although compiled nine years earlier, consisted of the meritorious but out of favor, as evidenced by its recommendation for first minister, Jéan-Fréderic Phélypeaux, Comte de Maurepas, seventy-three.
The acerbic Maurepas had served competently in various ministries until in 1749 Louis XV abruptly banished him to internal exile for a naughty epigram penned against the royal mistress. In 1774 the elderly Maurepas agreed to become, in effect, the first minister but took only the title of "special adviser." He oversaw the immediate dismissal of most of the sitting senior ministers, and won permission to revive the Parlement, a move that was hailed as liberal but was not since new rules further hamstrung the representatives. Banishing Louis XV's last mistress — Madame du Barry would have a large pension but to receive it she would have to reside in a convent — Maurepas and his wife moved into the apartment at Versailles that du Barry had occupied, connected to the king's quarters by a secret stairway. From there, as a biographer of Louis XVI writes, Maurepas was consistently able to sway the new king "by a long-drawn-out process of subtle blackmail, playing on his master's inexperience and dread of unpopularity."
The Dauphin's list prevented Maurepas from unilaterally choosing the remaining ministers, which allowed the elevation of several men whom Maurepas did not like but were of proven competence. The first was the Comte du Muy, a close friend of the Dauphin who took the minister of war portfolio that he had refused under Louis XV. A second was Turgot, who for thirteen years had been the public administrator at Limoges. The third was described on the Dauphin's list as "sagacious and capable," with "a sense of order." He was a relatively obscure diplomat, the ambassador to Sweden, Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, fifty-five. Maurepas was not eager to have Vergennes in the critical post of minister of foreign affairs, but Louis's aunts were, even though Vergennes was of the lesser nobility.
Such distinctions had guided France's destinies for too many generations. Cabinet ministers had routinely come from the upper nobility, the hereditary noblesse d'épée (nobility of the sword) — the families of princes, marquises, dukes, and some counts relatively close in blood to the royal line. The lesser nobility, the noblesse de robe (nobility of the gown), were those who had accumulated enough money and property to hold civil offices.
Excerpted from "How the French Saved America"
Copyright © 2017 Tom Shachtman.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: December 18–28, 1775,
"Matters so delicate that I tremble as I walk.",
Part One: A Mutual Courtship, 1755–1776,
1. "The true science of a sovereign.",
2. "Arrogance and insults against which my heart revolted.",
3. "The want of experience to move upon a larger scale.",
Part Two: Approaches and Retreats, 1776 –1777,
4. "Dukes, marqueses, comtes and chevaliers without number.",
5. "The arrival of these great succours raised the spirit of the Rebels.",
6. "France has done too much, unless she intends to do more.",
7. "If ever destruction was complete, it was here.",
Part Three: Making the Connection, 1777–1778,
8. "France and Spain should strike before England can secure the advantage.",
9. "When an Enemy think a design against them improbable they can always be Surprised.",
10. "To hinder the enemy from rendering himself master.",
Part Four: Together: First Steps, 1778 –1779,
11. "Concerting my operations with a general of Your Excellency's repute.",
12. "Take a bit of courage, have a bit of patience, and all will go well.",
13. "What a wonderful opportunity is slipping from our grasp.",
Part Five: Together: Struggling Through, 1780 –1781,
14. "The country that will hazard the most will get the advantage in this war.",
15. "My command of the F–Tps at R Is-d stands upon a very limited state.",
16. "Siberia alone can furnish any idea of Lebanon, Connecticut.",
Part Six: A Triumph and a Fare-Thee-Well, 1781–1783,
17. "Could not waste the most decisive opportunity of the whole war.",
18. "The measures which we are now pursuing are big with great events.",
19. "The English are purchasing the peace rather than making it.",
"After my head falls off, send it to the British, they will pay a good deal for it.",
List of Illustrations,
Also by Tom Shachtman,
About the Author,