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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·The Finances of the Revolution · Peace at Last·»

The Diplomacy of the Revolution

When the full measure of honor is given to the soldiers and sailors and their commanding officers, the civilians who managed finances and supplies, the writers who sustained the American spirit, and the women who did well their part, there yet remains the duty of recognizing the achievements of diplomacy. The importance of this field of activity was keenly appreciated by the leaders in the Continental Congress. They were fairly well versed in European history. They knew of the balance of power and the sympathies, interests, and prejudices of nations and their rulers. All this information they turned to good account, in opening relations with continental countries and seeking money, supplies, and even military assistance. For the transaction of this delicate business, they created a secret committee on foreign correspondence as early as 1775 and prepared to send agents abroad.

American Agents Sent Abroad.—Having heard that France was inclining a friendly ear to the American cause, the Congress, in March, 1776, sent a commissioner to Paris, Silas Deane of Connecticut, often styled the “first American diplomat.” Later in the year a form of treaty to be presented to foreign powers was drawn up, and Franklin, Arthur Lee, and Deane were selected as American representatives at the court of “His Most Christian Majesty the King of France.” John Jay of New York was chosen minister to Spain in 1779; John Adams was sent to Holland the same year; and other agents were dispatched to Florence, Vienna, and Berlin. The representative selected for St. Petersburg spent two fruitless years there, “ignored by the court, living in obscurity and experiencing nothing but humiliation and failure.” Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, expressed a desire to find in America a market for Silesian linens and woolens, but, fearing England’s command of the sea, he refused to give direct aid to the Revolutionary cause.

Early French Interest.—The great diplomatic triumph of the Revolution was won at Paris, and Benjamin Franklin was the hero of the occasion, although many circumstances prepared the way for his success. Louis XVI’s foreign minister, Count de Vergennes, before the arrival of any American representative, had brought to the attention of the king the opportunity offered by the outbreak of the war between England and her colonies. He showed him how France could redress her grievances and “reduce the power and greatness of England”—the empire that in 1763 had forced upon her a humiliating peace “at the price of our possessions, of our commerce, and our credit in the Indies, at the price of Canada, Louisiana, Isle Royale, Acadia, and Senegal.” Equally successful in gaining the king’s interest was a curious French adventurer, Beaumarchais, a man of wealth, a lover of music, and the author of two popular plays, “Figaro” and “The Barber of Seville.” These two men had already urged upon the king secret aid for America before Deane appeared on the scene. Shortly after his arrival they made confidential arrangements to furnish money, clothing, powder, and other supplies to the struggling colonies, although official requests for them were officially refused by the French government.

Franklin at Paris.—When Franklin reached Paris, he was received only in private by the king’s minister, Vergennes. The French people, however, made manifest their affection for the “plain republican” in “his full dress suit of spotted Manchester velvet.” He was known among men of letters as an author, a scientist, and a philosopher of extraordinary ability. His “Poor Richard” had thrice been translated into French and was scattered in numerous editions throughout the kingdom. People of all ranks—ministers, ladies at court, philosophers, peasants, and stable boys—knew of Franklin and wished him success in his mission. The queen, Marie Antoinette, fated to lose her head in a revolution soon to follow, played with fire by encouraging “our dear republican.”

For the king of France, however, this was more serious business. England resented the presence of this “traitor” in Paris, and Louis had to be cautious about plunging into another war that might also end disastrously. Moreover, the early period of Franklin’s sojourn in Paris was a dark hour for the American Revolution. Washington’s brilliant exploit at Trenton on Christmas night, 1776, and the battle with Cornwallis at Princeton had been followed by the disaster at Brandywine, the loss of Philadelphia, the defeat at Germantown, and the retirement to Valley Forge for the winter of 1777-78. New York City and Philadelphia—two strategic ports—were in British hands; the Hudson and Delaware rivers were blocked; and General Burgoyne with his British troops was on his way down through the heart of northern New York, cutting New England off from the rest of the colonies. No wonder the king was cautious. Then the unexpected happened. Burgoyne, hemmed in from all sides by the American forces, his flanks harried, his foraging parties beaten back, his supplies cut off, surrendered on October 17, 1777, to General Gates, who had superseded General Schuyler in time to receive the honor.

Treaties of Alliance and Commerce (1778).—News of this victory, placed by historians among the fifteen decisive battles of the world, reached Franklin one night early in December while he and some friends sat gloomily at dinner. Beaumarchais, who was with him, grasped at once the meaning of the situation and set off to the court at Versailles with such haste that he upset his coach and dislocated his arm. The king and his ministers were at last convinced that the hour had come to aid the Revolution. Treaties of commerce and alliance were drawn up and signed in February, 1778. The independence of the United States was recognized by France and an alliance was formed to guarantee that independence. Combined military action was agreed upon and Louis then formally declared war on England. Men who had, a few short years before, fought one another in the wilderness of Pennsylvania or on the Plains of Abraham, were now ranged side by side in a war on the Empire that Pitt had erected and that George III was pulling down.

Spain and Holland Involved.—Within a few months, Spain, remembering the steady decline of her sea power since the days of the Armada and hoping to drive the British out of Gibraltar, once more joined the concert of nations against England. Holland, a member of a league of armed neutrals formed in protest against British searches on the high seas, sent her fleet to unite with the forces of Spain, France, and America to prey upon British commerce. To all this trouble for England was added the danger of a possible revolt in Ireland, where the spirit of independence was flaming up.

The British Offer Terms to America.—Seeing the colonists about to be joined by France in a common war on the English empire, Lord North proposed, in February, 1778, a renewal of negotiations. By solemn enactment, Parliament declared its intention not to exercise the right of imposing taxes within the colonies; at the same time it authorized the opening of negotiations through commissioners to be sent to America. A truce was to be established, pardons granted, objectionable laws suspended, and the old imperial constitution, as it stood before the opening of hostilities, restored to full vigor. It was too late. Events had taken the affairs of America out of the hands of British commissioners and diplomats.

Effects of French Aid.—The French alliance brought ships of war, large sums of gold and silver, loads of supplies, and a considerable body of trained soldiers to the aid of the Americans. Timely as was this help, it meant no sudden change in the fortunes of war. The British evacuated Philadelphia in the summer following the alliance, and Washington’s troops were encouraged to come out of Valley Forge. They inflicted a heavy blow on the British at Monmouth, but the treasonable conduct of General Charles Lee prevented a triumph. The recovery of Philadelphia was offset by the treason of Benedict Arnold, the loss of Savannah and Charleston (1780), and the defeat of Gates at Camden.

The full effect of the French alliance was not felt until 1781, when Cornwallis went into Virginia and settled at Yorktown. Accompanied by French troops Washington swept rapidly southward and penned the British to the shore while a powerful French fleet shut off their escape by sea. It was this movement, which certainly could not have been executed without French aid, that put an end to all chance of restoring British dominion in America. It was the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown that caused Lord North to pace the floor and cry out: “It is all over! It is all over!” What might have been done without the French alliance lies hidden from mankind. What was accomplished with the help of French soldiers, sailors, officers, money, and supplies, is known to all the earth. “All the world agree,” exultantly wrote Franklin from Paris to General Washington, “that no expedition was ever better planned or better executed. It brightens the glory that must accompany your name to the latest posterity.” Diplomacy as well as martial valor had its reward.

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