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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