French-American Relations in the Age of Revolutions:
From Hope to Disappointment (1776-1800)

Speech given on February 6, 2003 by
Marie-Jeanne Rossignol, Professor of American Civilization,
Dean for Education and Programs
University Paris 7 - Denis Diderot

There is no doubt that the American War of Independence could not have been won without French financial and military aid. But American historians who specialize in the history of their Revolution often make light of the international dimension of the conflict. They focus on the American Revolution as a domestic event, on whether it did revolutionize the plight of slaves, women and Indians. They insist on its major consequences in the realm of political thought and institutions. They debate over whether the American Revolution went together with a social and cultural upheaval, pointing out the role of religion. But they do not seem to be interested in the diplomatic or military dimension of the event.
A friend of mine, who was translating my book into English, even objected to my using the phrase "War of Independence". She wanted to use "Revolution" instead each time, thinking perhaps that "War of Independence" was a politically incorrect term, like "War Between the States" to speak about the "Civil War." This is an indication of how little-known the conflict really is. However the War of Independence is what made the American Revolution possible. What made the eventual success of the War, and thus of the Revolution, possible, was French aid. French aid was not simply military or financial: it gave birth to hopes of mutual understanding and friendship on both sides of the Atlantic in the Age of the Enlightenment. What I want to explore this morning with you is how the unexpected alliance between two very different countries led first to high hopes of intellectual, economic and political friendship, but then resulted in misunderstanding, distrust, disappointment, and almost war, thus signalling in a way the end of the Enlightenment and its transatlantic possibilities.

1763-1778 : From Hostility to Mutual Goals.
Before the War of Independence, France and the British North American colonies had little in common. As Don Higginbotham writes in his famous history of the War of Independence , "Bred on a hatred of Catholicism and political absolutism associated with France, American writers for decades had shrilled for the permanent removal of the Gallic peril from North America not only to preserve British liberties, but also because the presence of the fleur de lys prevented their egress to the lusher parts of the North American interior." * However, the 1763 Treaty of Paris removed the French from North America; and might have opened the West for the American colonists, had not George III prevented them from expanding by preserving the trans-Appalachian West for the native Americans. This made the colonists angry at the British this time. As the colonial quarrel grew in the late 1760s and 1770s, French authorities were keen observers out of geopolitical rivalry with Great Britain in the region, and in general. Here was an opportunity to get back at Britain by contributing to the break-up of its empire. Such was French anticipation upon their official involvement in the conflict.

Higginbotham writes "Before a single patriot commissioner reached Paris, Louis XVI directed that one million livres be extended to Caron de Beaumarchais". ln 1777, Beaumarchais managed to send a fleet of seven ships loaded with guns, ammunition and other supplies safely to the United States. And Higginbotham adds "there is no way of measuring accurately the total value of the infinite forms of French assistance". French loans and subsidies became central to the ability of the American commissioners to meet their obligations toward contractors and exporters. The French opened their ports to American privateers and warships, French officers flocked to Washington's army and finally Franklin's subtle diplomatic pressures convinced the French to enter the fray. The French also tried to enlist the help of their Spanish cousins, but were faced with reticence. No doubt that such general and far-reaching commitment was not simply the consequence of the geopolitical conjuncture. It also corresponded to a genuine interest in the struggle of the American colonists among the French elite.

1776-1784: Enlightenment universalism and the origins of French-American friendship.
When Benjamin Franklin arrived in France in December 1776, he was already famous. Since his first visit to France in 1767, he had made powerful friends in the scientific elite and had been instrumental in the election of Condorcet, Raynal, Lavoisier and Daubenton to the American Philosophical Society (APS) of Philadelphia. He continued to forge intellectual bonds between the two nations after 1776 by having French scientists elected to the APS.

He himself continued to develop his network of influential friends in France through the French Masonic network, and the aristocratic salons, where he became extremely popular. To understand Franklin's popularity among scientists and non-scientists alike, one must remember that, although France was still an absolute monarchy, many liberal thinkers, even in the aristocracy, considered that the fight of the colonists was worthwhile and echoed their own questioning of France's political and social system. They were interested in the American struggle as it was framed in the universal values of the Enlightenment which they shared, such as equality and liberty. As a result, volunteers flocked to Washington's army: at first the American population was not very cordial towards these papist soldiers, but it soon warmed to them. American liking for the French thus started to develop and was fuelled by the intense Anglophobia that the war was bound to elicit through the depredations of British troops such as the destruction of plantations in the South. By 1783 French-American friendship could be considered as a genuine mutual fascination, affecting citizens and subjects in all walks of life and boding well for the future.

1784-1798 Post-War Desillusionment.
The French fascination for all things American and American francophilia continued to develop after the War of Independence. Numerous travellers, Such as Brissot de Warville, crossed the Atlantic and wrote enthusiastic reports. But these positive mutual impressions were rapidly counterbalanced by failure to develop privileged commercial relations between the two nations. The French had to face economic problems at home and wanted the Americans to pay back their debts quickly. This of course was made difficult during the years of the Confederation when the central government was not strong and could not impose its views on the various states. This changed after 1789, but the image of the United States as an unreliable partner had already taken root in France: the French scholar Allan Potofsky recently wrote a brilliant paper on this. Reciprocally the Americans were desperately looking for new commercial partners, as they did not want to become subjected to British economic domination again: Thomas Jefferson's correspondence as minister to France between 1784 and 1789 testifies to this attempt at changing traditional commercial links. However the French were not up to the expectations of Southern tobacco planters. Their bureaucracy was considered as too cumbersome and the goods they exported to the United States were not adapted to the American markets. By 1789 Britain had become the Americans' main economic partner again, much to the chagrin of French authorities who interpreted this trend as ungratefulness and a return to the British fold. The French public was also shocked at the 1790 Scioto scandal in which French emigrants to the Ohio Valley didn't find the land title they expected once they arrived and had to face dangerous native American neighbours.

However the first months of the French Revolution proved propitious for a renewed French-American friendship: Thomas Jefferson was involved in the drawing up of the French Bill of Rights in the summer of 1789. His successor, the very conservative Gouverneur Morris, was interviewed by French representatives on American constitutional documents. In November 1793, even Robespierre had the Convention reaffirm French-American friendship and the treaties between the two nations. Still, by that time, things had begun turning sour.
Starting in 1790, two parties had started forming in the United States: one was the party of Jefferson, with a strong pro-French bent, the other, that of Hamilton, with a more conservative, pro-British, stance. The advent of the French Republic, in September 1792, temporarily boosted the pro-French Republicans, as it ended the political and ideological isolation of the American Republic and legitimised its regime in a world dominated by monarchies. However the Federalists, led by Hamilton, used the French regime change to question the validity of the 1778 treaties : after bitter debates opposing Jefferson and Hamilton, it was then decided that the treaties were still valid but Washington opted for a policy of strict neutrality in the coming wars, thus crippling the treaties' military provisions. The new French minister to the United States, Edmond-Charles Genet, contributed further to a deterioration of the alliance by testing this American decision and trying to arm privateers from American harbours in the spring and summer of 1793. His actions discredited the French Republic in public eyes and led Jefferson to leave his position as secretary of state in December 1793.
A turning-point in French-American relations took place in 1794 when John Jay, a Federalist, was sent to London to discuss pending issues between the United States and Britain. Jay's Treaty, signed in November 1794, was interpreted by French authorities, then pitted against Britain in a merciless war, as a sign of American surrender to British demands, and thus as treason : the United States was at the time the only French ally remaining. A French editor wrote, recalling French support during the War of Independence: "Si n'aviez-vous pas une dette sacrée à payer, n'aviez-vous pas l'honneur national à défendre ? Qui retenait vos forts, qui capturait vos vaisseaux? L'Angleterre. Qui voulut vous asservir? Qui vous suscita (sic) la guerre contre les Algériens et les Indiens? L'Angleterre. Qui vous défendit quand vous brisâtes vos chaînes? La France. Qui veut pour son intérêt que vous conserviez votre liberté? la France " **.
French-American friendship was further eroded after 1797, when in a famous incident, Talleyrand refused to receive the three envoys sent by Washington to patch up relations between the two nations, asking for bribe money before relations could be re-established. France became the symbol of Old World corruption in the eyes of the American public and American authorities suspended the 1778 treaties. This break in the diplomatic relations between the two nations also reflected American anger at French privateers attacking their merchant fleet in the Atlantic, in retaliation against Jay's treaty.

1798-1800 The End of the Alliance and the Beginnings of a Long Mutual Misunderstanding.
Still there was no war between the two former allies. Negotiations resumed in 1799 and were to lead to the Convention de Mortefontaine, signed on September 30, 1800, which put an end to the 1778 treaties: France and the United States were no longer friends, or allies. Thomas Jefferson, who had earlier fought very hard for close relations between the two nations, was elected President in November but was not keen on developing new links between the two revolutionary republics. He promised not to entangle his country in relations with foreign nations, and set an example for a type of isolationist foreign policy that was to continue later.

ln 1957, Durand Echeverria published a book entitled Mirage in the West. A History of the French Image of American Society to 1815. His thesis was that both American and French observers were not so much interested in analysing the other country in its own terms as they were in finding echoes of their own preoccupations in the other country. This is what another scholar has called ‘the mirror effect': we are not looking at the others, but at ourselves in their image. More concretely, the Americans and the French came to fight together in 1778 for reasons that went beyond mere geopolitics: the American Revolution also fitted the political agenda of the French elite. As the agenda of elites in both countries no longer coincided in the 1790s for political and economic reasons, the two nations drifted apart. Still today they should remember the founding moment of the War of Independence, when their common fight led to the creation of modern Western politics. Without this unity, this important moment could not have existed.

Notes added by webpage editor:
p. 233, The War of American Independence, Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practices, 1763-1789 (NY, 1983) by Don Higginbotham: Dowd Professor of American History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; author or editor of many works on the American Revolution.
"If you did not have a sacred debt to pay, would you still not have nor a national honor to defend? Who occupies your forts, who captures your ships? England. Who wished to enslave you? Who encouraged the war with Algiers and the Indians? England. Who defended you when you broke your chains? France. Who wishes for their own interest that you keep your liberty? France."

Return to top of this page.

Return to webpage essay "Perspective on the French-American Alliance".

Page posted 25 March 2005; revised 31 March 2005.