The arrival of Benjamin Franklin in France at the end of 1776 had heralded great excitement in France. American liberty became a celebrated cause and many French officers had crossed the Atlantic to participate in the great contest.
|Treaty of Alliance (from Smithsonian)
The French government, however, took a much more cautious view. King’s rarely wanted to encourage excited calls of the people to overthrow their king, even if it was an enemy king. That sort of thinking could set a bad precedent that might, you know, result in the King of France losing his head someday.
Even so, many French leaders thought the American rebellion might be a great opportunity to weaken their British rival. An ongoing colonial rebellion would occupy the British ministry and sap the empire of men and money. A weakened Britain might allow France to retake some of the colonies it lost to Britain in prior wars.
At the same time, France was not prepared economically or militarily to go to war with Britain. Openly supporting the rebellion would bring on just such a war. So despite the desire of the American Commissioners to form an alliance with France, the ministry played hard to get. It refused to recognize the American diplomatic team in any official capacity or recognize American independence. It had funneled covert military aid via the arms smuggling business set up by Silas Deane and Pierre Beaumarchais. Whenever Britain called out France in these activities, officials were always shocked, SHOCKED, that a few bad apples were engaged in such behavior and acted to shut it down.
The greatest fear of those like French foreign minister Vergennes was that they would get caught up in a war with Britain, and that Britain would defeat or make a settlement with the Americans that would allow Britain to focus its full military might and wrath against France. The fear prevented France from committing openly to the support of the United States in these first years of the war.
News of Saratoga
The American Commissioners in France, Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee spent all of 1777 trying to cajole France into a commitment, but could not get more than a come on baby, you know I love you, but I can’t leave my wife right now. We have to keep our relationship on the down low for a little longer.
Through late summer and early fall of 1777 with news of Burgoyne’s capture of Fort Ticonderoga and Howe’s victory at Brandywine reaching Paris, the ministry thought the rebellion might be coming to an end. It ceased all written communication with the commissioners. Officials arrested a French ship captain accused of delivering war supplies to the Americans. The government recovered several prize ships captured by the Americans which were in French ports, returning them to their British owners. If the rebellion was about to end, France wanted to be able to maintain its relationship with Britain. It was perfectly ready to kick the Americans to the curb in order to protect themselves from British wrath.
|Franklin at Versailles (from Lib of Cong.)
News of General Washington’s defeat at Germantown also helped convince the French government that it was time to put a ring on it with America. Washington had lost at Brandywine and then lost Philadelphia to General Howe’s Army. For many countries, a military defeat and the loss of one’s capital would force them to sue for peace. France was impressed that the Continentals were prepared to counter-attack so quickly by striking at Germantown. It made clear there was no intent to give up, even if this attack was not successful.
In late November, Franklin received word that the Americans had defeated the British at Saratoga. The letter was written before Burgoyne’s final surrender, but after it became clear that surrender was inevitable. Franklin passed along this information the Court of Versailles.
Two days later, King Louis personally signed a request that the Commission resubmit a request for a formal alliance with France. Franklin took a couple of weeks to draft the proposed treaty, submitting it to Versailles on December 8, 1777.
Although he would not know it for months, on that same day, December 8, the Continental Congress at York approved an order for Deane to return to America to give an account of the affairs in Europe. This was another leap in the long running feud between Arthur Lee and Silas Deane.
|Silas Deane (Wikimedia)
He had, for some time, sent word back to important people in America that Deane and Beaumarchais were ripping off America by selling war supplies that the French government had secretly offered to provide free of charge. Lee also complained that both Deane and Franklin had British spies working on their staffs and that they frequently refused to keep Deane up to speed about their discussions with officials at Versailles.
Since Lee had two brothers serving in the Continental Congress: Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee, his accusations had a ready audience. Others, including John and Samuel Adams and a number of other New England delegates also had questions after hearing Lee’s accusations.
As they were on the verge of signing a treaty, Deane remained in France for several more months before his return home to clear his name. Lee’s determined opposition to his two fellow commissioners, however, remained an obstacle to negotiations.
Franklin and Deane largely seemed to keep Lee out of the details of many negotiations, as Lee had complained. However, they had to include Lee in the treaty discussions that began in December. They did not trust the man, and with good reason. Lee was still corresponding with men in London. Lee seemed to think that the British might still be willing to come to a political compromise with the US if they knew France was about to form an alliance. Lee had lived in London for many years, up until late 1776, when he received his appointment as a commissioner in Paris. He still had many friends among the Whig leaders in London.
Lee was not the only leak of course. Franklin’s personal secretary Edward Bancroft was also a paid British agent. There were others on London’s payroll as well. Nothing the commissioners did would escape the watchful eye of the North Ministry.
Although France had called for the negotiations, it did not seem to be in any hurry to complete them. At first, France said it needed to operate in concert with Spain. France and Spain had their own treaty which obligated France to get Spain’s approval on any agreements related to the Americas.
Spain had already worked with France to provide some covert aid to the Americans, so it was not like this would come as a surprise to them. Spain, however, quickly sent back word that they were not ready to support American Independence and would not approve any treaty.
With this, negotiations began to falter. France was happy to take its time getting there, but the Americans were not. They needed more aid right away. Also, there was always the danger of a military setback that could cause France to end the negotiations.
British Peace Feelers
At this same time, officials in London were on high alert that an alliance between France and the American colonies would drastically alter the balance of power. Britain could be fighting another war around the world to protect all of her colonies, many of which it had just taken from France and Spain in the 1760s.
King George III approved deployment of an agent to open up negotiations with the American Commissioners in Paris. The British sent Paul Wentworth, who had also recruited many of the spies who were currently working with the American Commissioners.
When Wentworth reached Paris, he sent a complex series of instructions to Silas Deane to hold a secret meeting. His anonymous note instructed Dean that he could find a coach at a specific place on the road outside of town. There, Deane would receive a note instructing him to go to a room where he could meet with the secret negotiator. Deane’s response was not quite so secretive. He sent back a response saying he would be in his office the next day, and that if the caller wanted to stop by, Deane would be happy to receive him.
Wentworth and Deane eventually arranged a dinner to discuss the outline of ending hostilities. London was prepared to allow the Americans to have their own Congress. The American colonies would not be subject to any internal laws enacted by Parliament. They would only have to respect Parliament’s authority in matters of trade or foreign policy. Further, Parliament would repeal any objectionable laws that had prompted the ongoing protests since the end of the Seven Years War. To further sweeten the deal, any Americans who helped secure the peace could receive knighthoods, peerages, jobs, money, or other rewards for their help.
If Britain had made this offer in 1774 or even in late 1775, the Continental Congress would have been ecstatic. It offered them everything they wanted, even more than the First Continental Congress had requested in its petitions.
The Commissioners would not meet formally with Wentworth, or any other British negotiators. Then, the Americans received word that Spain had rejected the alliance and would not recognize American independence. The momentum in favor of signing a treaty quickly evaporated as the French government reevaluated its position. Moving forward without its Spanish ally was a much riskier prospect for France.
In response, Franklin met with British Agent Wentworth during the first week of January 1778. According to Wentworth he even went so far as to discuss the possibility of recognition of independence. Franklin’s agreed that it was a good offer, but then added “Pity it did not come sooner.”
It appears that Franklin had no intention of actually negotiating peace terms with Britain. Rather, Franklin wanted the word of his secret negotiations with Britain to leak back to French officials. If France believed that Britain and America might come to an amicable peace, France’s chance to benefit from the British weakness would evaporate with it. By letting the French know they were talking to the British, Franklin forced Foreign Minister Vergennes and the French to step up and negotiate a treaty without delay.
Franklin's gambit worked. Two days after Franklin’s meeting with Wentworth, French officials asked him what would be necessary to have the commissioners end their negotiations with Britain. Over the next few weeks, the commissioners worked with French negotiator Conrad Alexandre Gérard to produce the mutually agreeable details for a Treaty of Alliance and a Treaty of Amity and Commerce.
Treaty of Alliance
The first treaty created a military alliance between France and the United States. It guaranteed that the United States would retain control of any land conquered in the war, including the formerly French Quebec. France would take Bermuda and other island colonies in the West Indies that it had lost in the last war with Britain, as well as any other islands it might capture.
Both countries would aid each other in the likely impending war with Britain, and neither country would sign a separate peace with Britain until the other agreed. Another article invited other countries to join the alliance. This was mostly targeted at Spain, even if not mentioned explicitly.
The treaty created a permanent alliance between the two countries, lasting beyond the hoped for victory over Britain.
Treaty of Amity and Commerce
The Treaty of Alliance was one of two treaties that the negotiators were trying to finalize. The other one, known as the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, caused a little more controversy. The second treaty was essentially a trade agreement between the US and France. You have to remember there was no such thing as free trade during this period. Most of the larger empires required their colonies to trade only with the mother country, and no one else. It was how they retained their wealth and power.
|Treaty of Amity and Commerce
Beyond allowing general trade, the treaty pledged protection of vessels from the other country when in each country’s jurisdiction. Each country would restore property to the other if captured by pirates. Privateers and warships could use each other’s ports. Each country would provide protection to ships within their waters and provide assistance on the high seas.
Neither side would commission enemy privateers against the other, nor would they allow enemy privateers use of their ports. Both countries could appoint consuls and agents to work out of ports in the other country.
Authorities in both countries could search ships for contraband, but guaranteed due process for any contraband seized. On the high seas, ships of war or privateers could search merchant ships only once. Merchant ships would carry passports and manifests.
Private parties of either country could purchase and own land in the other. They could not, however, fish off the other country’s waters, other than off the banks of Newfoundland.
Both parties retained the right to trade with enemy states as long as the goods were not declared to be contraband.
There was also an agreement that if the treaty ever ended, both countries would give merchant ships six months protection in their territory. This allowed for time to get the word out to merchant ships about the change in status.
Two articles in the thirty-three article treaty caused some contention. Arthur Lee, the only lawyer on the American side, objected to Articles 11 and 12. These gave the US duty-free access to molasses from French island colonies, but gave the French duty-free access to all exports from America. Lee believed this was too one-sided and gave a great trade advantage to France.
The two other American Commissioners, Franklin and Deane, were not nearly as concerned. First, they just wanted to get a treaty in place, even if not perfect. Having a French trading partner would be a huge coup for the United States. Secondly, as merchants, they were not crazy about their own government being able to levy export duties on goods shipped abroad anyway.
At first, Lee acceded to the other commissioners, but the next day insisted that they write back to the French negotiators and insist that Articles 11 and 12 be rewritten. The French, however, held firm and refused to make any changes. This dispute, which held up final ratification, became another source of dispute between Lee on one side, and Franklin and Deane on the other.
By February 5, 1778, the two sides were ready to sign the treaties. Although Franklin was well known in France for wearing his simple brown homespun coat to all events, on this occasion he wore a much fancier blue velvet suit. It was the same suit he had worn almost exactly four years earlier in London when he was humiliated in the cockpit for his revelation of private correspondence. That had marked the end of his career as an agent in Britain. When Deane asked why he wore it, Franklin said “for a little revenge” and then recounted the day of his humiliation in the cockpit in London.
|Signing the Treaties (from Wikimedia)
While Gérard's signature had committed France, it wanted the treaty kept secret for a few more weeks while France attempted to get Spain on board with the new treaty. The parties agreed to keep it a secret. Franklin then gave the treaty to his secretary Edward Bancroft. The British spy immediately made a copy and had it in London less than two days later.
A month later, on March 13, the French ambassador in London formally informed the North Ministry that France had recognized American independence. Four days later, March 17, Britain declared war on France. With all that out in the open, King Louis formally received the American Commissioners at court for the first time on March 20.
Back in America, the Congress at York joyfully received news of the treaties. It did not receive the actual treaties until May 2, but approved them on May 4. The next day, May 5, it rejected Articles 11 and 12 based on Arthur Lee’s letters. Those controversial trade rules would be removed from the final treaties.
That aside, the treaties marked a new stage of the war. No longer would the war be a simple rebellion. It was now becoming a new world war between the powers of Europe. On May 5, after receiving word of Congress’ approval, Washington issued a general order that “Upon a signal given, the whole Army will Huzza! 'Long Live the King of France.'”
Next week, we will hear how London is dealing with these very changed circumstances.
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Treaty of Alliance (full text) https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=4&page=transcript
Treaty of Alliance with France https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/alliance.html
Treaty of Amity and commerce (full text) https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fr1788-1.asp
(from archive.org unless noted)
Journals of Congress Vol. 3 January 1, 1777 - January 1, 1778.
Chinard, Gilbert (ed) The Treaties of 1778, and Allied Documents, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1928 (borrow only).
Deas, Anne Izard (ed) Correspondence of Mr. Ralph Izard, of South Carolina, from the year 1774 to 1804; with a short memoir, Vol. 1, C. S. Francis, 1844.
Hale, Edward E. Franklin in France, Roberts Brothers, 1883.
Isham, Charles (ed) The Deane Papers, New York Historical Society, 1887.
Lyman, Theodore The Diplomacy of the United States: being an account of the foreign relations of the country, from the first treaty with France, in 1778, to the present time, Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1828.
Prowell, George R. Continental Congress at York, Pennsylvania and York County in the Revolution, The York Printing Co., 1914.
Sparks, Jared (ed) The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, Vol. 1, Hale, Gray & Brown, 1829.
Trevelyan Sir George Otto The American Revolution Vol 4, London: Longman’s Green & Co. 1922 (original 1907).
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Burnett, Edmund Cody, The Continental Congress, Macmillan Co. 1941.
Drury, Bob & Clavin, Tom Valley Forge, Simon & Schuster, 2018.
Isaacson, Walter Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Simon & Schuster, 2003.
Montross, Lynn The Reluctant Rebels, Harper & Brothers, 1950.
Paul, Joel Richard Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution, Riverhead, 2009.
Schiff, Stacy A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, Henry Holt & Co. 2005.
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