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Benjamin Franklin And The French Alliance
Adapted from her new book, The Secret War of Independence , Behind the benevolent smile lurked the master of intrigue, skillfully maneuvering the vacillating courts of Europe
April 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 3
The glorious news of General Gates’s victory at Saratoga reached Passy about the first of December, 1777, by a Charleston ship, and on the fourth it was confirmed by Jonathan Loring Austin, secretary of the Massachusetts Board of War, who had rushed to France in a specially chartered vessel. America’s first decisive victory held the promise of the final one at Yorktown. As America’s sole diplomat Franklin had done all that one man could do to influence the ministries of Europe. Now he felt the reinforcement of those thousands of his countrymen who had won the campaign in the North. The American people had shown their power. And the French people, cheering in the streets and squares, were as proud of Saratoga, he wrote home, “as if it had been a Victory of their own Troops over their own Enemies.”
Beaumarchais was with the three commissioners when the official messenger arrived. He had made Saratoga possible. His Amphitrite and Mercure were already home, having delivered their supplies at Portsmouth—gunpowder and blankets and clothing, sixty cannon, and 12,000 stand of arms.
Soon Beaumarchais’s coach was tearing down the road to Paris so fast that it overturned and he injured an arm. The story goes that he was rushing to play the stock market, and no doubt he was. But the accident was symbolic: Hortalez & Company had suffered a bouleversement . The romantic era of secret aid was finished; there would be no more subsidies and loans from Versailles, and his company was already in financial straits.
A sensible man would have liquidated Hortalez & Company at once. If he had been a mere speculator in gunrunning like many of his compatriots, or an appropriator of Bourbon funds, as Arthur Lee claimed, he would have seen that the game was up. But Beaumarchais was on a crusade for American independence, and he would not drop it until independence was won. Hortalez & Company now became what it had always pretended to be—a private concern—and he kept on sending supplies to the United States until after Yorktown.
Then and then only did he dissolve his company, which had spent over 42,000,000 livres, mostly for America, and most of it never paid back. He supported his private investment in the American future by using his fleet of a dozen ships for Caribbean trade on the return voyage to France, and this sugar trade brought him profits to invest in more goods for America.
Vergennes, on that December day of jubilation, did some cooler thinking of his own and rightly guessed that the British would try to effect a conciliation with the Americans before they won any more campaigns. He sent his first secretary, Gérard de Rayvenal, to Passy with his congratulations and the suggestion that Franklin might now press the treaty negotiation which France had avoided for nearly a year. Louis XVI was making a new advance of 3,000,000 livres to Congress.
The treaties of amity and commerce were promptly offered. They were based on the Plan of 1776, drafted chiefly by Franklin, and they laid down his cherished, and essentially modern, principles of free trade and settled the wholly new problem of how a republic should conduct its relations with a kingdom. In a word, Franklin laid the cornerstone of American foreign relations, and for a long time to come American treaties would be modeled on these first ones with France.
Modern as they were, and involving as they did a certain war with Britain, these treaties were provisionally accepted on December 12 by Louis XVI and his ministers. Gérard, calling at Passy that evening, gave the commissioners a full report of the Cabinet meeting. To forestall a truce with Britain, the ministers had stipulated that the United States must make no peace that surrendered her independence. And Spanish concurrence in the alliance must be won. A courier was on his way to Madrid, and the decision of Charles III should be known within three weeks. Meanwhile, Gérard warned, the negotiations must be kept secret.
Nothing was a dead secret at Passy. The two Lees and Izard were busily writing letters about the expected alliance. Arthur Lee’s secretary, Major John Thornton, was not only British but British secret service. Bancroft had sped to London, mainly to make a killing on the stock market, but he would not fail to bring George III the bad news.
Franklin and Vergennes, knowing that Arthur Lee was dangerous as well as disagreeable, kept him out of the treaty negotiations as much as possible. For months, in fact, Franklin and Deane had slipped away in the evening for conferences with the minister, and Lee spread the word that the Doctor was having an affair with some French beauty.
The idling envoys to Vienna, Berlin, and Tuscany not only buzzed around Passy day after day but tried to rewrite Franklin’s treaties. Arthur Lee knew he was being kept out of important conferences, and yet within a few months he was writing friends that he alone had negotiated the French alliance, though Franklin and Deane tried to take credit for the work. “It was with the greatest difficulty,” he wrote, “I persuaded them to insist on the recognition of our sovereignty, and the acknowledgement of our independence. These were proposed by your friend [A. Lee], evaded by his colleagues.”