Why did France side with the American Colonies during the American Revolution?
During the American Revolution, the American colonies faced the significant challenge of conducting international diplomacy and seeking the international support it needed to fight against the British. The single most important diplomatic success of the colonists during the War for Independence was the critical link they forged with France.
While France and the Colonies had flirted with each other it was not until the British surrender at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 that France decided to ally with the Colonies against Britain. Representatives of the French and American governments signed the Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce on February 6, 1778.
Secret Committee created to Communicate with Potential Allies
American colonists hoped for possible French aid in their struggle against British forces. The Continental Congress established the Secret Committee of Correspondence to publicize the American cause in Europe. Committee member Benjamin Franklin wrote to contacts in France with encouraging accounts of colonial resistance. The French had suffered a defeat by the British during the Seven Years’ War and had lost North American territory under the 1763 Treaty of Paris. As the French and the British continued to vie for power in the 1770s, French officials saw an opportunity in the rebellion of Britain’s North American colonies to take advantage of British troubles. Through secret agents, the French Government began to provide clandestine assistance to the United States, much of which they channeled through American trader Silas Deane.
As the members of the Continental Congress considered declaring independence, they also discussed the possibility and necessity of foreign alliances and assigned a committee to draft a Model Treaty to serve as a guide for this work. After Congress formally declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, it dispatched a group of several commissioners led by Benjamin Franklin to negotiate an alliance with France. When news of the Declaration of Independence and the subsequent British evacuation of Boston reached France, the French Foreign Minister Charles Gravier (Comte de Vergennes) decided in favor of an alliance. However, once news of General George Washington’s defeats in New York reached Europe in August of 1776, Vergennes wavered, questioning the wisdom of committing to a full alliance.
Franklin negotiates an Alliance with France
Benjamin Franklin’s popularity in France bolstered French support for the American cause. The French public viewed Franklin as a representative of republican simplicity and honesty, an image Franklin cultivated. A rage for all things Franklin and American swept France, assisting American diplomats and Vergennes in pushing for an alliance. In the meantime, Vergennes agreed to provide the United States with a secret loan.
Despite the loan and discussions of a full alliance, the French limited their assistance to the new American Colonies at the outset. Throughout 1777, Vergennes delayed as he conducted negotiations with the Spanish Government, which was wary of U.S. independence and also wanted assurances that Spain would regain territories if it went to war against the British.
Vergennes finally decided in favor of an alliance when news of the British surrender at the Battle of Saratoga reached him in December 1777. Vergennes, having heard rumors of secret British peace offers to Franklin, decided not to wait for Spanish support and offered the United States an official French alliance. On February 6, 1778, Benjamin Franklin and the other two commissioners, Arthur Lee and Silas Deane, signed a Treaty of Alliance and a Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France.
The Treaty of Alliance
The Treaty of Alliance contained the provisions the U.S. commissioners had originally requested, but also included a clause forbidding either country to make a separate peace with Britain, as well as a secret clause allowing for Spain, or other European powers, to ally with France and the American Colonies. Spain officially entered the war on June 21, 1779. The Treaty of Amity and Commerce promoted trade between the United States and France and recognized the United States as an independent nation.
Between 1778 and 1782 the French provided supplies, arms and ammunition, uniforms, and, most importantly, troops and naval support to the beleaguered Continental Army. The French navy transported reinforcements, fought off a British fleet, and protected Washington’s forces in Virginia. French assistance was crucial in securing the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781.
With the consent of Vergennes, U.S. commissioners entered negotiations with Britain to end the war, and reached a preliminary agreement in 1782. Franklin informed Vergennes of the deal and also asked for an additional loan. Vergennes did complain about this instance but also granted the requested loan despite French financial troubles. Vergennes and Franklin successfully presented a united front despite British attempts to drive a wedge between the allies during their separate peace negotiations. The United States, Spain, and France formally ended the war with Britain with the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
Although European powers considered their treaty obligations abrogated by the French Revolution, the United States believed it to be in effect despite President Washington’s policy of neutrality in the war between Britain and France. The Citizen Genêt Affair erupted partially because of clauses contained in the alliance treaty that violated the neutrality policy. The Treaty of Paris also remained technically in effect during the undeclared Quasi-War with France and was formally ended by the Convention of 1800 which also terminated the Quasi-War.
Treaty of Alliance - Full Text
The most Christian King and the united States of North America, to wit, New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhodes island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, having this Day concluded a Treaty of amity and Commerce, for the reciprocal advantage of their Subjects and Citizens have thought it necessary to take into consideration the means of strengthening those engagements and of rondring them useful to the safety and tranquility of the two parties, particularly in case Great Britain in Resentment of that connection and of the good correspondence which is the object of the said Treaty, should break the Peace with france, either by direct hostilities, or by hindring her commerce and navigation, in a manner contrary to the Rights of Nations, and the Peace subsisting between the two Crowns; and his Majesty and the said united States having resolved in that Case to join their Councils and efforts against the Enterprises of their common Enemy, the respective Plenipotentiaries, impower'd to concert the Clauses & conditions proper to fulfil the said Intentions, have, after the most mature Deliberation, concluded and determined on the following Articles.
ART. 1. If War should break out between france and Great Britain, during the continuance of the present War between the United States and England, his Majesty and the said United States, shall make it a common cause, and aid each other mutually with their good Offices, their Counsels, and their forces, according to the exigence of Conjunctures as becomes good & faithful Allies.
ART. 2. The essential and direct End of the present defensive alliance is to maintain effectually the liberty, Sovereignty, and independance absolute and unlimited of the said united States, as well in Matters of Gouvernement as of commerce.
ART. 3. The two contracting Parties shall each on its own Part, and in the manner it may judge most proper, make all the efforts in its Power, against their common Enemy, in order to attain the end proposed.
ART. 4. The contracting Parties agree that in case either of them should form any particular Enterprise in which the concurrence of the other may be desired, the Party whose concurrence is desired shall readily, and with good faith, join to act in concert for that Purpose, as far as circumstances and its own particular Situation will permit; and in that case, they shall regulate by a particular Convention the quantity and kind of Succour to be furnished, and the Time and manner of its being brought into action, as well as the advantages which are to be its Compensation.
ART. 5. If the united States should think fit to attempt the Reduction of the British Power remaining in the Northern Parts of America, or the Islands of Bermudas, those Countries or Islands in case of Success, shall be confederated with or dependent upon the said united States.
ART. 6. The Most Christian King renounces for ever the possession of the Islands of Bermudas as well as of any part of the continent of North america which before the treaty of Paris in 1763. or in virtue of that Treaty, were acknowledged to belong to the Crown of Great Britain, or to the united States heretofore called British Colonies, or which are at this Time or have lately been under the Power of The King and Crown of Great Britain.
ART. 7. If his Most Christian Majesty shall think proper to attack any of the Islands situated in the Gulph of Mexico, or near that Gulph, which are at present under the Power of Great Britain, all the said Isles, in case of success, shall appertain to the Crown of france.
ART. 8. Neither of the two Parties shall conclude either Truce or Peace with Great Britain, without the formal consent of the other first obtain'd; and they mutually engage not to lay down their arms, until the Independence of the united states shall have been formally or tacitly assured by the Treaty or Treaties that shall terminate the War.
ART. 9. The Contracting Parties declare, that being resolved to fulfill each on its own Part the clauses and conditions of the present Treaty of alliance, according to its own power and circumstances, there shall be no after claim of compensation on one side or the other whatever may be the event of the War.
ART. 10. The Most Christian King and the United States, agree to invite or admit other Powers who may have received injuries from England to make common cause with them, and to accede to the present alliance, under such conditions as shall be freely agreed to and settled between all the Parties.
ART. 11. The two Parties guarantee mutually from the present time and forever, against all other powers, to wit, the united states to his most Christian Majesty the present Possessions of the Crown of france in America as well as those which it may acquire by the future Treaty of peace: and his most Christian Majesty guarantees on his part to the united states, their liberty, Sovereignty, and Independence absolute, and unlimited, as well in Matters of Government as commerce and also their Possessions, and the additions or conquests that their Confederation may obtain during the war, from any of the Dominions now or heretofore possessed by Great Britain in North America, conformable to the 5th & 6th articles above written, the whole as their Possessions shall be fixed and assured to the said States at the moment of the cessation of their present War with England.
ART. 12. In order to fix more precisely the sense and application of the preceding article, the Contracting Parties declare, that in case of rupture between france and England, the reciprocal Guarantee declared in the said article shall have its full force and effect the moment such War shall break out and if such rupture shall not take place, the mutual obligations of the said guarantee shall not commence, until the moment of the cessation of the present War between the united states and England shall have ascertained the Possessions.
ART. 13. The present Treaty shall be ratified on both sides and the Ratifications shall be exchanged in the space of six months, sooner if possible.
In faith whereof the respective Plenipotentiaries, to wit on the part of the most Christian King Conrad Alexander Gerard royal syndic of the City of Strasbourgh & Secretary of his majesty's Council of State and on the part of the United States Benjamin Franklin Deputy to the General Congress from the State of Pensylvania and President of the Convention of the same state, Silas Deane heretofore Deputy from the State of Connecticut & Arthur Lee Councilor at Law have signed the above Articles both in the French and English Languages declaring Nevertheless that the present Treaty was originally composed and concluded in the French Language, and they have hereunto affixed their Seals
Done at Paris, this sixth Day of February, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-eight.
- C. A. GERARD
- B FRANKLIN
- SILAS DEANE
- ARTHUR LEE
- Republished from Office of the Historian, United States Department of State
- Article: French Alliance, French Assistance, and European Diplomacy during the American Revolution, 1778–1782
- The Treaty of Alliance from The Avalon Project