Philosophy for once agreed with diplomacy: the writings of Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Raynal, and a hundred others had prepared the French mind to support colonial as well as intellectual liberation, and many American leaders—Washington, Franklin, Jefferson—were sons of the French Enlightenment. So, when Silas Deane came to France (March, 1776) to seek a loan for the rebellious colonies, public opinion was strongly sympathetic. The ebullient Beaumarchais sent memoir after memoir to Vergennes, urging him to help America.
Vergennes was a nobleman who believed in monarchy and aristocracy, and was no friend of republics or revolutions; but he longed to avenge France against England. He would not sanction any open aid to America, for the British navy was still stronger than the French despite Sartine’s outlays, and in open war it could soon destroy French shipping. But he advised the King to permit some secret aid. If (he argued) Britain crushed the revolt, it would have, in or near America, a fleet capable of taking at will the French and Spanish possessions in the Caribbean. If the revolt could be prolonged, France would be strengthened, England would be weakened, and the French navy could complete its renewal. Louis trembled at the thought of helping a revolution, and he warned Vergennes against any overt act that might lead to war with England.96
In April Vergennes wrote to Beaumarchais:
We will secretly give you one million livres. We will try to obtain an equal sum from Spain. [This was obtained.] With these two millions you will establish a commercial firm, and at your risk and peril you will supply the Americans with arms, munitions, equipment, and all other things that they will need to maintain the war. Our arsenal will deliver to you arms and munitions, but you will either replace them or pay for them. You will not demand money from the Americans, since they have none, but you will ask in return the produce of their soil, which we will help you sell in this country.97
With this money Beaumarchais bought cannon, muskets, gunpowder, clothing, and equipment for 25,000 men; these stores he sent to a port where Deane had assembled and refitted several American privateers. The arrival or assurance of this aid encouraged the colonists to issue their Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776). Translated into French, and circulated with the tacit consent of the French government, this pronouncement was greeted with enthusiasm and joy by the philosophes, and by Rousseau’s disciples, who recognized in it some echoes of the Contrat social. In September the American Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee to proceed as commissioners to France, join Deane, and seek not only more supplies, but, if possible, open alliance.
It was by no means Franklin’s first appearance in Europe. In 1724, not yet nineteen, he went to England; he worked as a printer, published a defense of atheism,98 returned to Philadelphia and deism, married, joined the Freemasons, and won international renown as inventor and scientist. In 1757 he was sent to England to represent the Pennsylvania Assembly in a tax dispute. He stayed in England five years, met Johnson and other notables, visited Scotland, met Hume and Robertson, received a degree from the University of St. Andrews, and was henceforth Dr. Franklin. He was again in England from 1766 to 1775, addressed the House of Commons in opposition to the Stamp Tax, attempted conciliation, and went back to America when he saw that war was imminent. He shared in drafting the Declaration of Independence.
He reached France in December, 1776, bringing two grandchildren with him. He was now seventy years old, and looked like wisdom itself; all the world knows that massive head, the sparse white hair, the face like the full moon at its beaming rise. The scientists covered him with honors, the philosophers and the physiocrats claimed him as their own, the admirers of ancient Rome saw in him Cincinnatus, Scipio Africanus, and both Catos, all reborn. The ladies of Paris dressed their hair in a curly mass to imitate his beaver cap; doubtless they had heard of his many amours. The courtiers were startled by his simplicity of manners, dress, and speech; but instead of his seeming ridiculous in his almost rustic garb, it was their own display of velvet, silk, and lace that appeared now as a vain attempt to cover reality with show. Yet they too accepted him, for he paraded no utopias, talked with reason and good sense, and showed full awareness of the difficulties and the facts. He realized that he was a Protestant, a deist, and a republican seeking help from a Catholic country and a pious King.
He went about his task cautiously. He offended no one, delighted everyone. He paid his respects not only to Vergennes but to Mirabeau père and Mme. du Deffand; his bald head shone at the salons and at the Académie des Sciences. A young noble, the Duc de La Rochefoucauld, was proud to be his secretary. Crowds ran after him when he appeared in the streets. His books, translated and published as Oeuvres complètes, had a wide welcome; one volume, La Science du bonhomme Richard (Poor Richard’s Almanac),went through eight editions in three years. Franklin attended the Neuf Soeurs Lodge of the Freemasons, and was made an honorary member; the men he met there helped him to win France to an alliance with America. But he could not ask at once for open support from the government. Washington’s army was in retreat before Sir William Howe, and its morale seemed shattered. While waiting for more propitious events Franklin settled down in Passy, a pleasant suburb of Paris, and studied, negotiated, wrote propaganda under pseudonyms, entertained Turgot, Lavoisier, Morellet, and Cabanis, and flirted with Mme. d’Houdetot at Sannois and Mme. Hel-vétius at Auteuil; for these women had a charm that made them agelessly attractive.
Meanwhile Beaumarchais and others were sending supplies to the colonies, and French army officers were enlisting for service under Washington. Silas Deane wrote in 1776: “I am well-nigh harassed to death with applications of officers to go out to America. … Had I ten ships here I could fill them all with passengers for America.”99 All the world knows how the Marquis de Lafayette, nineteen years old, left a devoted and pregnant wife to go (April, 1777) and serve without pay in the colonial army. He confessed to Washington, “The one thing for which I thirst is glory.”100 In that quest he faced many dangers and humiliations, was wounded at Brandywine, shared the hardships of Valley Forge, and earned warm affection from the usually reserved Washington.
On October 17, 1777, a force of five thousand British soldiers and three thousand German mercenaries, coming down from Canada, was overwhelmed at Saratoga by a colonial army of twenty thousand men, and surrendered. When news of this American victory reached France the plea of Franklin, Deane, and Lee for an alliance found more acceptance among the King’s advisers. Necker opposed it, unwilling to see his almost balanced budget upset by the expenses of a war. Vergennes and Maurepas won reluctant consent from Louis XVI by warning him that England—long since aware and resentful of French aid to America—might make peace with her colonies and turn her full military force against France. On February 6, 1778, the French government signed two treaties with “the United States of America”: one established relations of trade and assistance, the other secretly stipulated that if England should declare war upon France the signatories would join in defense; neither would make peace without the other’s consent, and both would continue to fight England until American independence had been won.
On March 20 Louis received the American envoys; Franklin put on silk stockings for this occasion. In April John Adams arrived to replace Deane; he lived with Franklin at Passy, but found the old philosopher so occupied with women that little time was left for official business. He quarreled with Franklin, tried to have him recalled, failed, and returned to America. Franklin was made minister plenipotentiary to France (September, 1779). In 1780, aged seventy-four, he proposed, in vain, to Mme. Helvétius, aged sixty-one.
The war was popular with almost every Frenchman except Necker. He had to raise the great sums that France lent to America: a million livres in 1776, three million more in 1778, another million in 1779, four in 1780, four in 1781, six in 1782.101 He entered into private negotiations with Lord North (December 1, 1779) in the hope of finding a formula of peace.102 In addition to these loans he had to raise money to finance the French government, army, navy, and court. Altogether he borrowed, from bankers and the public, 530,000,000 livres.103 He coaxed the clergy into lending fourteen million, repayable in installments of a million livres a year. He still refused to raise taxes, though the prosperity of the upper classes might have made this comparatively painless; his successors were to complain that he left to them this unavoidable necessity. The financiers favored him because he allowed them, on their loans, the high interest rates which they demanded on the ground that they were running increasing risks of never being repaid.
To foster confidence in the financial community, Necker, with the King’s consent, published in January, 1781, a Compte rendu au Roi, which purported to inform the King and the nation of the government’s revenues and expenses. It brightened the picture by excluding military outlays and other “extraordinary” charges, and ignoring the national debt. The Compte rendu was bought by the public at the rate of thirty thousand copies in twelve months. Necker was acclaimed as a wizard of finance who had saved the government from bankruptcy. Catherine the Great asked Grimm to assure Necker of her “infinite admiration for his book and for his talents.”104 But the court was angry that the Account Rendered to the King had exposed so many fiscal abuses of the past, and so many pensions that went out from the treasury. Some attacked the document as merely a eulogy of the minister by himself. Maurepas became as jealous of Necker as he had been of Turgot, and joined several others in recommending his dismissal. The Queen, though she had been vexed by Necker’s economies, defended him, but Vergennes called him a revolutionist,105 and the intendants, who feared that Necker planned to undermine them by establishing more provincial assemblies, joined in the cry and hunt. Necker contrived his own fall by declaring that he would resign unless given the full title and authority of a minister, with a seat on the Conseil du Roi. Maurepas told the King that if this were done all the other ministers would abandon their posts. Louis yielded, and let Necker go (May 19, 1781). All Paris except the court mourned his fall. Joseph II sent condolences; Catherine invited him to come and direct the finances of Russia.106
On October 12, 1779, Spain joined France against England, and the combined French and Spanish fleets, 140 ships of the line, now almost equaled the 150 vessels of the British navy,107 and interrupted Britannia’s rule of the waves. This change in the balance of naval power vitally affected the American war. The main British army in America, seven thousand men under Lord Cornwallis, held a fortified position at Yorktown on the York River near Chesapeake Bay. Lafayette with five thousand men and Washington with eleven thousand (including three thousand Frenchmen under the Comte de Rochambeau) had converged on Yorktown and had captured all feasible land approaches. On September 5, 1781, a French fleet under the Comte de Grasse defeated an English squadron in the bay, and then shut off all escape by water for Cornwallis’ outnumbered force. Having exhausted his provisions, Cornwallis surrendered with all his men (October 19, 1781). France was able to say that de Grasse, Lafayette, and Rochambeau had played major roles in what proved to be the decisive event of the war.
England asked for terms. Shelburne sent separate missions to the French government and to the American envoys in France, hoping to play one ally against the other. Vergennes had already (1781) meditated peace with England on the basis of partitioning most of North America among England, France, and Spain.108 He entered into an understanding with Spain to keep the Mississippi Valley under European control.109 In November, 1782, he proposed to support the English in their endeavor to exclude the American states from the Newfoundland fisheries.110 These negotiations were quite in line with diplomatic precedents, but the American envoys, learning of them, felt warranted in operating with similar secrecy. Vergennes and Franklin agreed that each ally might deal separately with England, but that neither should sign any treaty of peace without the other’s consent.111
The American negotiators—chiefly John Jay and Franklin—played the diplomatic game brilliantly. They won for the United States not only independence but also access to the Newfoundland fisheries, half of the Great Lakes, and all the vast and rich area between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi; these were far better terms than the American Congress had expected to obtain. On November 30, 1782, Jay, Franklin, and Adams signed a preliminary treaty with England. Formally this violated the agreement with Vergennes, but it stipulated that it was not to have validity until England had made peace with France. Vergennes complained, then accepted the situation. On September 3, 1783, the definitive treaty was signed—“in the name of the most Holy and undivided Trinity”112—between England and America at Paris, between England, France, and Spain at Versailles. Franklin remained in France as United States ambassador till 1785. When he died in Philadelphia, April 17, 1790, the French Constituent Assembly wore mourning for three days.
The French government was made bankrupt by the war, and that bankruptcy led to the Revolution. Altogether France had spent a billion livres on the conflict, and the interest on the national debt was dragging the treasury down day by day toward insolvency. Nevertheless that debt was an affair between the government and the rich; it hardly affected the people, many of whom had prospered from the stimulation of industry. The monarchy was critically injured, but not the nation; otherwise how could history explain the success with which the economy and the armies of Revolutionary France withstood half of Europe from 1792 to 1815?
Certainly the spirit of France was uplifted. Statesmen saw in the peace of 1783 a triumphant resurrection from the debasement of 1763. The philosophes hailed the result as a victory for their views; and indeed, said de Tocqueville, “The Americans seemed to have executed what our writers had conceived.”113 Many Frenchmen saw in the achievement of the colonies an inspiring presage of democracy spreading through Europe. Democratic ideas infected even the aristocracy and the parlements. The Declaration of Rights issued by the Virginia constitutional convention on June 12, 1776, and the Bill of Rights added to the American Constitution, became part models for the Declaration of the Rights of Man promulgated by the French Constituent Assembly on August 26, 1789.
It was the final glory, the culminating chivalry, of feudal France that it died in helping to establish democracy in America. It is true that most French statesmen thought in terms of revitalizing France. But the enthusiasm of nobles like Lafayette and Rochambeau was real; they risked their lives time and again in serving the newborn state. “I was far from being the only one,” wrote the young Comte de Ségur, “whose heart palpitated at the sound of the awakening of liberty, struggling to shake off the yoke of arbitrary power.”114 The famous surrender of feudal rights by the aristocrats in the Constituent Assembly (August 4, 1789) was here prefigured and prepared. It was a brave hara-kiri. France gave money and blood to America, and received in return a new and powerful impulse to freedom.