22.1.8: The American Revolution
France supported the rebellious colonies (eventually the United States) during the American Revolution because it perceived the revolt as the embodiment of Enlightenment ideals and as an opportunity to curb British ambitions.
Connect the American Revolution and French politics
- The origins of the French involvement in the American Revolution go back to the British victory in the French and Indian War. France’s loss in that war weakened its international position at the time when Britain was becoming the most powerful European empire. The outbreak of the American Revolution was thus seen in France as an opportunity to curb British ambitions.
- From the spring of 1776, France (together with Spain) was informally involved in the American Revolutionary War by providing supplies, ammunition, and guns. The 1777 capture of a British army at Saratoga encouraged the French to formally enter the war in support of Congress.
- Benjamin Franklin negotiated a permanent military alliance in early 1778 and thus France became the first country to officially recognize the Declaration of Independence. In 1778, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance were signed between the United States and France.
- France supported the United States in North America but as the enemy of Britain, it was also involved in the Caribbean and Indian theaters of the American Revolution.
- France’s material gains in the aftermath of the American Revolution were minimal, but its financial losses huge. The treaty with France was mostly about exchanges of captured territory (France’s only net gains were the islands of Tobago and Senegal in Africa). Historians link the disastrous post-war financial state of the French state to the subsequent French Revolution.
- The American Revolution also serves as an example of the transatlantic flow of ideas. At its ideological roots were the ideals of the Enlightenment, many of which emerged in France and were developed by French philosophers. Conversely, the American Revolution became the first in a series of upheavals in the Atlantic that embodied the ideals of the Enlightenment and thus inspired others to follow the revolutionary spirit, including the French during their 1789 Revolution.
- An intellectual movement which dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century. It included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and came to advance ideals such as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.
- French and Indian War
- A 1754-1763 conflict that comprised the North American theater of the worldwide Seven Years’ War of 1756-1763. The war pitted the colonies of British America against those of New France, with both sides supported by military units from their parent countries of Great Britain and France as well as by American Indian allies.
- Treaty of Paris of 1763
- A 1763 treaty signed by the kingdoms of Great Britain, France and Spain with Portugal in agreement, after Great Britain’s victory over France and Spain during the Seven Years’ War. The signing of the treaty formally ended the Seven Years’ War and marked the beginning of an era of British dominance outside Europe. Great Britain and France each returned much of the territory that they had captured during the war, but Great Britain gained much of France’s possession in North America. Additionally, Great Britain agreed to protect Roman Catholicism in the New World. The treaty did not involve Prussia and Austria as they signed a separate agreement, the Treaty of Hubertusburg.
- Second Anglo-Mysore War
- A 1780-1784 conflict between the Kingdom of Mysore and the British East India Company. At the time, Mysore was a key French ally in India, and the Franco-British war sparked Anglo-Mysorean hostilities in India. The great majority of soldiers on the company side were raised, trained, paid, and commanded by the company, not the British government.
- New France
- The area colonized by France in North America during a period beginning with the exploration of the Saint Lawrence River by Jacques Cartier in 1534 and ending with the cession to Spain and Great Britain in 1763. At its peak in 1712, the territory extended from Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains and from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, including all the Great Lakes of North America.
France and the American Revolution: Background
The origins of the French involvement in the American Revolution go back to the British victory in the French and Indian War (1754–1763; the American theater in the Seven Years’ War). The war pitted the colonies of British America against those of New France, with both sides supported by military units from their parent countries as well as by American Indians. As a result of the war, France ceded most of the territories of New France, except the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, to Great Britain and Spain at the Treaty of Paris of 1763. Britain received Canada, Acadia, and the parts of French Louisiana which lay east of the Mississippi River – except for New Orleans, which was granted to Spain, along with the territory to the west – the larger portion of Louisiana. Consequently, France lost its position as a major player in North American affairs.
France’s loss in the war weakened its international position at the time when Britain began turning into the most powerful European empire. The outbreak of the American Revolution was thus seen in France as an opportunity to curb British ambitions. Furthermore, both the French general population and the elites supported the revolutionary spirit that many perceived as the incarnation of the Enlightenment ideals against the “English tyranny.” In political terms, the Revolution was seen in France as an opportunity to strip Britain of its North American possessions in retaliation for France’s loss a decade before.
From the spring of 1776, France and Spain were informally involved in the American Revolutionary War, with French admiral Latouche Tréville leading the process of providing supplies, ammunition, and guns from France. In 1777, the British sent an invasion force from Canada to seal off New England as part of a grand strategy to end the war. The British army in New York City went to Philadelphia, capturing it from Washington. The invasion army under John Burgoyne waited in vain for reinforcements from New York and became trapped in northern New York state. It surrendered after the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777.
A British army was captured at the Battle of Saratoga in late 1777 and in its aftermath, the French openly entered the war as allies of the United States. Estimates place the percentage of French-supplied arms to the Americans in the Saratoga campaign at up to 90%.
The capture of a British army at Saratoga encouraged the French to formally enter the war in support of Congress. Benjamin Franklin negotiated a permanent military alliance in early 1778 , making France the first country to officially recognize the Declaration of Independence. In 1778, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance were signed between the United States and France. William Pitt, former British prime minister and Britain’s political leader during the Seven Years’ War, spoke out in parliament urging Britain to make peace in America and unite with America against France, while other British politicians who previously sympathized with colonial grievances now turned against the Americans for allying with Britain’s international rival and enemy. Later, Spain (in 1779) and the Dutch (1780) became allies of the French, leaving the British Empire to fight a global war without major international support.
The American theater became only one front in Britain’s war. The British were forced to withdraw troops from continental America to reinforce the valuable sugar-producing Caribbean colonies, which were considered more important. British commander Sir Henry Clinton evacuated Philadelphia to reinforce New York City because of the alliance with France and the deteriorating military situation. General Washington attempted to intercept the retreating column, resulting in the Battle of Monmouth Court House, the last major battle fought in the north. After an inconclusive engagement, the British successfully retreated to New York City. The northern war subsequently became a stalemate, as the focus of attention shifted to the smaller southern theater.
The northern, southern, and naval theaters of the war converged in 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia. The British army under Cornwallis marched to Yorktown, where they expected to be rescued by a British fleet. The fleet was there but so was a larger French fleet. The British returned to New York for reinforcements after the Battle of the Chesapeake, leaving Cornwallis trapped. In October 1781, the British surrendered their second invading army of the war under a siege by the combined French and Continental armies under Washington.
In 1781, British forces moved through Virginia and settled at Yorktown, but their escape was blocked by a French naval victory in September. A combined Franco-American army launched a siege at Yorktown and captured more than 8,000 British troops in October. The defeat at Yorktown finally turned the British Parliament against the war and in early 1782 they voted to end offensive operations in North America.
France was also involved in the Caribbean and Indian theaters of the American Revolutionary War. Although France lost St. Lucia early in the war, its navy dominated the Caribbean, capturing Dominica, Grenada, Saint Vincent, Montserrat, Tobago, St. Kitts, and Turks and Caicos between 1778 and 1782. Dutch possessions in the Caribbean and South America were captured by Britain but later recaptured by France and restored to the Dutch Republic. When word reached India in 1778 that France had entered the war, the British East India Company moved quickly to capture French trading outposts there. The capture of the French-controlled port of Mahé on India’s west coast motivated Mysore’s ruler, Hyder Ali, to start the Second Anglo-Mysore War in 1780. The French support was weak, however, and the status quo ante bellum (“the state existing before the war”) 1784 Treaty of Mangalore ended the war. France’s trading posts in India were returned after the war.
Aftermath of the American Revolution for France
France’s material gains in the aftermath of the American Revolution were minimal but its financial losses huge. The treaty with France was mostly about exchanges of captured territory (France’s only net gains were the islands of Tobago and Senegal in Africa), but it also reinforced earlier treaties, guaranteeing fishing rights off Newfoundland. France, already in financial trouble, was economically exhausted by borrowing to pay for the war and using up all its credit. Its participation in the war created the financial disasters that marked the 1780s. Historians link those disasters to the coming of the French Revolution. Ironically, while the peace in 1783 left France on the verge of an economic crisis, the British economy boomed thanks to the return of American business.
The American Revolution also serves as an example of the transatlantic flow of ideas. At its ideological roots were the ideals of the Enlightenment, many of which emerged in France and were developed by French philosophers. Conversely, the American Revolution became the first in a series of upheavals in the Atlantic that embodied the ideals of the Enlightenment and thus inspired others to follow the revolutionary spirit, including the French during their 1789 Revolution. The American Revolution was a powerful example of overthrowing an old regime for many Europeans who were active during the era of the French Revolution, and the American Declaration of Independence influenced the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789.
- The American Revolution
“French and Indian War.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_and_Indian_War. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
“France in the American Revolutionary War.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/France_in_the_American_Revolutionary_War. Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.
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“1280px-Surrender_of_General_Burgoyne.jpg.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/France_in_the_American_Revolutionary_War#/media/File:Surrender_of_General_Burgoyne.jpg. Wikipedia Public domain.
“1024px-Surrender_of_Lord_Cornwallis.jpg.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Revolutionary_War#/media/File:Surrender_of_Lord_Cornwallis.jpg. Wikipedia Public domain.