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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
His association with Hortalez was a stroke of luck. At last America would hear of the third Lee brother, hitherto a cipher, as its savior in Europe. When Deane arrived in Paris in the summer of 1776 Arthur Lee rushed over from London. But he was too late. Deane and Beaumarchais were already fast friends, working in harmony to load the Hortalez fleet with war supplies. Lee could not bear to lose Beaumarchais and tried to detach him from Deane. He only succeeded in quarreling with them both, and when he tried to see Vergennes, he was quite properly snubbed. All this was excruciating, since Lee had trumpeted in letters home that he had the ministry and Hortalez in his pocket. He went back to London in a fury.
Silas Deane was invaluable. He helped Beaumarchais buy and fit out eight ships, prudently scattered in various ports: the Amphitrite, Mercure, Flammand, Mère Bobie, Seine, Thérèse, Amelia , and Marie Catherine . Between them Beaumarchais and Deane amassed arms and every necessary article of clothing for an army of 30,000 men. By October Beaumarchais had spent the original 2,000,000 livres from the Bourbon kings, plus another million from France, and 2,600,000 livres in the form of credit from French merchants.
Delays which were not the fault of Deane and Beaumarchais held up most of the fleet for months after lading. But the Amphitrite and Mercure got away in time to reach Portsmouth by April, 1777, with supplies which at last turned the tide of war and made the crucial victory of Saratoga possible. The providence which was evidently favoring the American cause got the rest of the fleet safely to the mainland except the Seine , which the British captured after she had unloaded part of her cargo on Martinique.
Much of the maddening delay in dispatching the ships was caused by Vergennes. He had to fend off a break with England until France was ready for war. The Hortalez ships, scattered as they were at Marseilles, Bordeaux, Nantes, Le Havre, and Dunkirk, were still too conspicuous to be missed by the busy British spies. Lord Stormont, the British ambassador, had been sputtering at Vergennes for two years about the shipping of contraband from French ports, and now he raised such a storm that the minister had to forbid the sailing of one Hortalez vessel after the other. Then, when the diplomatic pressure eased, he would stealthily release them one at a time.
This cat and mouse game was only part of the new turn in French policy. Franklin found that the American stock had lately plunged to its lowest point. Washington’s defeat on Long Island and his retirement through the Jerseys made the Bourbon courts doubt if the war could succeed. There would soon be an unfavorable change in the Spanish ministry: Grimaldi, friendly to America, would be replaced as chief minister by the Count of Floridablanca, who feared that an America now independent would before long overrun Spanish possessions in the New World. His policy was to reconcile Britain and the United States; never, if he could help it, would Spain go to war on the American side. Even Vergennes was now lukewarm. He could not urge France into the war without Spanish support and without patriot victories to insure the survival of the young nation across the Atlantic.
Franklin immediately got to work at this dismal situation. As soon as Arthur Lee arrived from London the three commissioners wrote Vergennes announcing their appointment to negotiate a treaty of amity and commerce with France.
Vergennes promptly granted the requested interview. He already knew Deane, and wished not to know Arthur Lee, but he was consumed with curiosity about Franklin. The first diplomatic exchange between the United States and a foreign power was highly personal: Franklin and Vergennes sizing each other up.
Franklin knew that Vergennes, who for years had befriended America, would scuttle her the instant she ceased to serve his purpose. He knew that this purpose was the weakening of Britain rather than the emancipation of the United States. To Vergennes, Americans were shedding their blood in order to bleed England. All this was so familiar to Franklin that it did not discourage him; he simply had to be on his guard for the moment when Vergennes would stop playing for the joint interests of both countries and play for France alone.
Vergennes sensed that the benign old Doctor was ready to fence with naked steel, that he perfectly realized France was playing the old game of power rivalry, and that he would co-operate in the game—up to a point—to keep France as an ally. Discovering that point at which the common interests of France and the United States diverged would be a delicate task, and also an enjoyable one since he was matching wits with Franklin.
In a few swift parries Franklin suggested what his technique of dealing with the ministry would be. America needed French aid of every sort: ships, supplies, loans, to begin with. She was starting out as a beggar at the court of Versailles, and she would have to keep on begging until the war was over. By a supple turn of the wrist, Franklin transformed Franco-American relations. The United States, far from asking something for herself, was in reality advancing Bourbon interests and fighting their war. In order to make the war effective he reminded Vergennes of things Vergennes could do for the Bourbon cause: release the Hortalez ships, foster the American trade, and lend Congress money.