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
As a past master in the art of making the other man feel that he was acting solely for him, Vergennes recognized this basic technique in diplomacy. Moreover, he knew that Franklin was talking sense; if Washington was losing battles there were reasons for his setback which France could do a great deal to remedy. In this first interview the minister was lifted out of his discouragement by Franklin’s solid faith in the American destiny, and by his understanding of the whole European complex which made him able to suggest the right move at the right time rather than chimerical impossibilities.
If Vergennes had any doubts about Franklin’s grasp of Bourbon aims, they were resolved by the Doctor’s masterly letter of January 5. It began with the bold request that France sell the United States eight ships of the line, completely manned . England, Franklin said suavely, could hardly object to France sending the battleships with their crews, since Britain herself was borrowing or hiring troops from other states. But if she should declare war on France, “we conceive that by the united force of France, Spain, and America, she will lose all her possessions in the West Indies, much the greatest part of that commerce which has rendered her so opulent, and be reduced to that state of weakness and humiliation which she has, by her perfidy, her insolence, and her cruelty both in the east and the west, so justly merited.”
Vergennes himself could not have stated the Bourbon feelings about Britain more accurately.
Franklin had already urged that France and Spain conclude treaties of amity and commerce with the United States, and his letter went farther, offering these powers a firm guarantee of their present possessions in the West Indies, plus any new islands they conquered in a war growing out of their aid to the United States.
And finally Franklin played his trump card, the possibility that America might be forced back into the British Empire “unless some powerful aid is given us or some strong diversion be made in our favor.” He knew that the Bourbon nightmare was the picture of Britain, reunited with her American colonies, sweeping Spain from the lower Mississippi and both Bourbon powers from the Caribbean. He was to evoke this nightmare more than once, but it never lost its effect.
A few days later Louis XVI made the United States a loan of 2,000,000 livres. The requested battleships were not forthcoming; it was explained that France needed every unit of her Navy for her own purposes, which of course meant her expected war with Britain. The royal loan was followed by an advance of a third million by the Farmers General of the French Revenue, who administered the government monopoly of tobacco and hoped for large shipments from Congress. It was a long time before this contract with the Farmers General could be satisfied, since few ships could now run the British blockade of the American seaboard. The French loan was a godsend. The commissioners drew on it for their expenses, for the purchase of war supplies, for building three frigates in Holland and France, and for keeping up the maritime war in European waters.
The situation at home was alarming. The British drive through the Jerseys threatened Philadelphia, and in December Congress evacuated to Baltimore, where it remained until February.
The currency had fallen to half its value. Naval affairs were stagnant; the privateers attracted all the able seamen. Shipping was at a premium; in the last year the price of vessels had tripled. The southern states were crammed with tobacco, which could not even be sent up along the coast because of the British cruisers on patrol. American morale was so low that only the immediate entrance of France into the war could put heart into the country.
Franklin resolved to break through any limitations put on his mission by Congress. Since France and Spain were not responding to the offer of a trade alliance, he raised his sights and proposed what amounted to a military one. On February i he urged that France enter her unavoidable war at once, and the next day gave Vergennes the personal pledge of the commissioners that if France entered the war the United States would not make a separate peace with Britain. Later Congress backed up this pledge and authorized “all tenders necessary” to get Bourbon help.
Communications with Congress were rapidly being snuffed out by the capture of dispatches on the high seas and even more by the skill of British agents in intercepting letters, especially those bound for America. From May, 1777, to May, 1778, Congress would receive no direct word from its mission in Paris. But before this blackout settled down Congress managed to get dispatches through, which in effect begged Franklin to manage his side of the desperate crisis as he saw fit.
At once, on March 17, the commissioners sent memoirs to the French and Spanish ministries urging a triple war against Britain and her ally Portugal. The joint conquest was proposed of Canada, the Floridas, and the British West Indies. If successful, France would get as her share half the Newfoundland fishery and all the sugar islands; Spain would be enriched by Portugal and the Floridas, and the United States would gain Canada, Bermuda, and the Bahamas. No peace would be made except by the general consent.
The memoir to Vergennes asked for a French loan of £2,000,000 (which Congress had hopefully requested) . If France refused armed intervention, the Americans prayed “the wise king’s advice,” whether to try to get help from some other power, “or to make offers of peace to Britain on condition of their Independency being acknowledged.”