The French Connection

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Two great historic figures, men who have merged into myth, are almost the sole remains of the alliance between France and the revolutionary forces of America—Lafayette and Benjamin Franklin. And like most myths time has changed them, clothing the reality in a web of romance. The young Marquis de Lafayette, plunging ashore on North Island, South Carolina, is seen as the personification of those forces in France that yearned for liberty, for freedom from the oppressive hierarchical regime of an absolutist monarchy. These young French idealists found much justification for their attitudes in the simplicity, the honesty, the ruggedness, and the equality of American life—or so we are told. In contrast Benjamin Franklin at Passy symbolized for the sophisticated Parisian salons the true philosopher—natural, unaffected, wise, free from all artifice. The textbooks tell us that the ease of his presence, the extraordinary sanity of his views, his undeviating patriotism, his strength and gravity, rallied all that was best and generous in French society to the American cause. Lafayette, back from America, transmuted warmth into action; and so, standing symbolically behind the serried ranks of Rochambeau’s troops at Yorktown, are Lafayette, with his sword held aloft, and Franklin quietly smiling like a Chinese sage. Both men have left a profusion of papers behind, certain of their place in history and not at all unmindful of the image they wished to display to posterity. Great men though both undeniably were, the writers of history, and so posterity, have perhaps been overgenerous.

Their dazzling prominence has thrown a shadow on many men, and particularly is this true of Lafayette, who was only one of many foreigners whose help was of great aid to the Revolution in the early stages. Who now thinks with gratitude of de Kalb or Pulaski? Or of Lafayette’s compatriots—Pontgibaud, Armand, Duportail, Fleury, and the rest? And although both Arthur Lee and Silas Deane have been rescued from relative obscurity, it is the Franklin of the salon, the cher Papa of the witty, sophisticated middle-aged hostesses, that continues to steal the limelight. To understand the French connection in 1776 one must dig beneath the simplicities symbolized by Lafayette and Franklin, important though they were.

Early in August, 1775, a large coach rattled into Metz and deposited the Duke of Gloucester, the brother of George III, at the door of the military governor, the Comte de Broglie, with whom he was to dine. Gloucester was thirty-two years of age. He had outraged the court, the government, and the king in particular by first living with and then marrying the bastard daughter of Sir Edward Walpole, the son of George H’s great minister Sir Robert. The bitterness of the court, mountainous debts, and ill health had driven him from England. And many politicians, as well as the court, heaved a sigh of relief as Gloucester and his bride left Dover, for he, at loggerheads with his brother, favored the radicals and the firebrands, particularly John Wilkes—the most skillful agitator opposed to the king. Indeed, one of the reasons why the Comte de Broglie was so eager to be his host was that Gloucester could give him firsthand information about the support, or lack of it, that George Ill’s American policy enjoyed in England. Like all of the Hanoverian royal family Gloucester talked volubly and indiscreetly. Influential men in London, powerful men in the provinces, a great number of members of Parliament, were bitterly opposed to his brother’s policy and his brother’s ministers, Gloucester informed Broglie, and the words were as sweet to Brogue’s ear as they were soothing to Gloucester’s bruised ego. Indeed, Gloucester painted so dramatic a picture of the divisions in England that he seemed to hint at a nation on the verge of civil war, the provinces in an uproar, and Ireland in turmoil. In later years, writing of this dinner, Lafayette recalls how he closely cross-examined the duke, and realizing how liberty and freedom were oppressed in England as well as America, he was fired by a desire to spring to America’s aid. Alas, nothing is less likely to be true. Lafayette was a shy, reticent boy, eighteen years of age, young-looking for his years, who had recently been sent to Metz to do garrison duty under his relative Brogue. He was a naive young aristocrat of small experience of the world. Doubtless he sat silent among the equerries, but certainly his imagination was fired, and this was the starting point of Lafayette’s journey to fame.