France in the American Revolution

Leading up to the American Revolution, France and Britain had spent the better part of two centuries jockeying for position in the New World, and the seventy-five-year period between 1690 and 1763 was a period of almost continual warfare between the two imperial powers. The conflict in America between France and Britain was not isolated to that continent, as the two countries were fighting each other in Europe as well, and America was but one theater. Seen in this light, France’s intervention on behalf of the rebels was merely an extension of that long struggle. At the end of the Seven Years War, France had lost all its possessions in the New World, and was sufficiently chastened as to be cautious in reentering a conflict with its old nemesis when hostilities broke out between Britain and the colonies.

The rebels in America needed France more than France needed them, especially as the war dragged on and Washington cautiously dithered. France enjoyed the luxury of joining the war effort on a relatively limited basis, and it did so fairly confident that it had little to lose. It is difficult to imagine how the war could have continued much longer, much less resulted in an American victory, had the French not disregarded Washington’s desire to attack New York and instead moved its fleet to the Chesapeake and the York River. This action seemed to have spurred Washington finally into moving south and trapping Cornwallis into what was perhaps the decisive engagement of the war.[1]

For their part, the colonists were divided in their opinion about the prudence of reaching out to another European power for assistance. Many rightfully recognized the dangerous possibility of exchanging one sponsoring monarchy for another, but contingencies on the ground forced their hand. Perhaps fortunately for the rebels, France was on the verge of its own revolutionary unrest, and was unable to follow through on any grander designs of its own, if indeed it had possessed any such plans. The England vs. France debate continued to play out among the statesmen of the new republic, and disagreements over this very subject contributed heavily to the bitter acrimony between the former friends John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.[2]


[1] John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 233, 241.

[2] Joseph J. Ellis, Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), 219.

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Reading Opinion Essay: Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984).

At the outset, I must admit that Tuchman’s work was the first substantive history of the American Revolution that I ever had read. I had, of course, the minimal required exposure to the subject in high school, but as an undergraduate I took world civilization surveys to fulfill my history requirements, and my natural curiosity had not led me to explore the topic any further. Without a deeper background in the subject, therefore, tackling Tuchman was a little intimidating, since her approach seemed to presuppose more knowledge of the war than I possessed. However, I enjoyed her writing a great deal, at least in terms of the information she provided, and found that she fit much of that information into a context that was easy to follow and understand.

I was particularly impressed with Tuchman’s thorough description of the British ruling class and its idiosyncrasies, and how those peculiarities contributed to an oftentimes paralyzing dysfunction in British governance. Again recalling my limited knowledge of the subject, I was fully invested in the simplistic American mythology of the Revolution, and had imagined that an insane King George III single-handedly repressed the colonists and drove them to war. Tuchman corrected my misconceptions by providing a comprehensive account of the colorful personalities that moved through the revolving door of the British government between the ends of the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution. She did so in a style that was very easy for me to read and understand, and which I found to be playful and charming in many instances. Discussing the predilections of the British aristocracy, for example, Tuchman described how these young noblemen “could become restless and bored under difficulties and usually retreated for half the year to the charms of their country homes, their racing stables, hunting fields and adventures in landscaping.”[1] Those final whimsical words, and others like them sprinkled throughout the book, had me laughing out loud as I read. The primary difficulty I had throughout this section of Tuchman’s work was keeping track of the ever-expanding cast of characters, though this was most likely an unavoidable problem given the sheer number of personalities involved.

While I found Tuchman’s narrative very readable for the most part, one area I took issue with was the format of her source citation. I much prefer footnotes to endnotes, although I realize that editors (if not the authors themselves) may not like the way that footnotes clutter the pages of a manuscript. I have resigned myself, when reading most scholarly monographs, to flipping back and forth between the text and the endnotes, but Tuchman’s endnotes were not so easy to follow. Since the reference endnotes were not numbered in any way, and instead merely contained a page reference and a snippet of the relevant quote, I quickly tired of the back-and-forth game and simply consumed the narrative without referring to any of the notes as I read.

The overall theme of Tuchman’s book was fascinating to me, and the approach she took was equally interesting. I found very insightful her argument that “folly…that is, the pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved,”[2] was detectable and comparable in historical events as diverse as the siege of Troy, the American Revolution, and the Vietnam War. She further clarified her position by stating that “[s]elf-interest is whatever conduces to the welfare or advantage of the body being governed; folly is a policy that in these terms is counter-productive.”[3] I originally thought that Tuchman had done a poor job of proving her thesis; I read the section on the American Revolution before I turned back to the first chapter of her book, so I did not fully understand or appreciate what Tuchman was trying to achieve. In other words, I originally thought she meant that it was folly for the British government not to act in its own self-interest, when in fact she was making the case that British policy toward the colonies was folly because it was not conducive to the interests of the colonists. This distinction was very important, since my failure to grasp it colored my interpretation of Tuchman’s success at achieving her objectives.

Tuchman, in fact, did a very good job of showing how the British government antagonized the colonists time and again, often despite the protests of reasonable men in both Britain and the colonies. Proving that the Crown was working against the interests of the American colonies was a relatively simple achievement, given the litany of abuses. For each outrage committed against the colonists, Tuchman discussed alternative proposals that were made by those within and without the government, policy suggestions that may have led to a different outcome for all involved. The fact that these reasonable alternatives were consistently ignored by the British government was cited by Tuchman as proof that the Crown engaged in a persistent pattern of folly in its relationship with the American colonies. But this was folly only as clearly defined by Tuchman in the first chapter (a definition I completely missed in my original reading); namely, that the British did not enact policies conducive to the colonists’ interests.

Even after fully understanding Tuchman’s intent, I still felt like she was missing something. What about the interests of the British government itself? What if the interests of the governing body and the governed constituency were diametrically opposed? Did Tuchman believe it was folly for the Crown to unilaterally ignore its own interests in favor of those of the colonists? Parliament had a clear and necessary interest in asserting its sovereignty over the American colonies. The British were certainly incompetent in the way they handled many of the particulars, as Tuchman clearly illustrated, but in an expanding empire, Parliament could not afford to appear weak in the face of resistance to its policies. Tuchman claimed that British “[s]elf-interest lay in retaining the colonies in goodwill, and if this was considered the hinge of British prosperity and yet incompatible with legislative supremacy, then supremacy should have remained, as so many advised, unexercised.”[4] The question Tuchman left unanswered for me was how that would have been possible if the interests of the British government involved expanding its influence and empire.


[1] Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984), 135.

[2] Tuchman, The March of Folly, 5.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tuchman, The March of Folly, 230.

Thoughts on Ben Franklin

Benjamin Franklin is, to me at least, the most interesting and colorful of all the cast of characters we have looked at so far. I cannot decide if he was an opportunistic cynic, or if he had legitimate reasons for changing his outlook toward England and its relationship with the colonies. At the very least, if Franklin was running for political office today, he would certainly be labeled a “flip-flopper” by his opponents. Franklin in any case did not appear to have been a man of extraordinarily high principles, at least during most of the inter-war period. Tuchman pointed out, for example, the possibility that Franklin helped temper colonial anger over the Sugar Act because he owed his position as Deputy Postmaster General to King George III.[1] Ferling was fairly clear about it when he noted that Franklin “seemed desperate to avoid ever having to face the choice between loyalty to Great Britain or to America, but should that terrible eventuality occur, he tried to hedge his bets by keeping one foot planted in each camp.”[2] Indeed, it appears that Franklin was not overtly anti-British until after the humiliating scolding he received in the Cockpit over the Hutchinson letters. Even then, however, he remained a short while longer in London “for one last roll of the dice to rehabilitate himself…and to help prevent a war fraught with difficult personal choices.”[3]

This sort of mundane politicking on Franklin’s part simply does not jibe with my (admittedly limited) knowledge of our nation’s founders. I had assumed—naively, I suppose, and in accordance with our national mythology—that the Founding Fathers were men of high-minded principles and somehow immune to the vagaries of human nature. It is simultaneously comforting and disappointing to discover that they were, in fact, not gods. I have an unread copy of Gordon S. Wood’s The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin on my shelf; I suppose it is high time I read it.


[1] Barbara W. Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (New York: Ballantine Books, 1984), 147.

[2] John Ferling, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 125.

[3] Ibid., 126.

Britain in the 1760s: Evil or Inept?

It is patently unfair to characterize eighteenth-century Britain as “evil,” especially when compared to the truly malevolent madmen the twentieth century produced. “Inept” is perhaps closer to the mark, though I am not so sure it is fair to paint the entire British people or even its government with such broad strokes. George III and many of his ministers and legislators were certainly overmatched in the job of governing the American colonies, and the British system of government perhaps contributed to the problem. Patronage appointments, political coalitions, and shifting alliances within and without the court of George III were handled by aristocrats who often had little or no formal training or experience in governing.[1] Indeed, actual governing seemed in many cases to take a back seat to plots, counterplots, political infighting, and, ultimately, how the spoils would be divided.

I also somewhat disagree with Tuchman’s thesis that “folly” led to the war and Britain’s defeat; that “the greater was thrown away for the less, the unworkable pursued at the sacrifice of the possible.”[2] For Tuchman and Ferling (and, at least from the historical evidence, for the American colonists), taxes were the issue. Perhaps even George III and many in his government believed this to be the case. But if we view the situation from a wider angle, it makes more sense to me to assert that the supremacy of Parliament was the primary problem. Parliament was attempting, albeit often very clumsily, to exert its authority over not just the American colonies, but also over the mother country and the rest of it possessions around the world. When viewed from this perspective, Tuchman’s “greater” becomes Parliament’s supreme authority, an authority which it could not allow to be undermined by provincials who, quite frankly, would not have wanted to pay any taxes at all.

 


[1] Barbara W. Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (New York: Ballantine, 1984), 137-42.

[2] Ibid., 128.