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The French Connection
Rakehells, men of good will, adventurers, and bunglers were all in the glittering pageant when the Old World came to help out the New
December 1974 | Volume 26, Issue 1
As with armaments, so with men. The court was forced by its official policy of neutrality to voice disapproval, particularly of Lafayette, who showed no discretion whatsoever about his intentions. Naturally, he was an ardent proselytizer among his young aristocratic friends. Lafayette, who enjoyed the control of his own immense fortune, could not be stopped by his family, and the court’s measures to stop him were always halfhearted and always too late. Also the French were eager to get de Kalb into America; on his judgment and military intelligence they could wholly rely, and Lafayette’s ship was most convenient. It is not surprising that the order to arrest Lafayette arrived too late. When de Kalb reached America with young Lafayette, they found plenty of foreign military adventurers, most of them with supporting letters from Silas Deane, swarming around Congress demanding the highest commissions. Many American commanders were naturally irritated to see Frenchmen promoted above them. Congress itself was growing restive, yet the importance, the need for France was so great that most of the French got what they wanted, and Lafayette himself became a general under the avuncular care of George Washington.
The early days of the French connection need not be told. Most of the individual Frenchmen fought well; most of them took a gloomy view of American fighting ability, generalship, and capacity to survive. De Kalb formed a low opinion of Washington’s abilities that was only dispelled by Valley Forge. At times even Lafayette’s enthusiasm wilted. But his dreams sustained him—the reconquest of Canada, a descent on India, the expulsion of the British from the West Indies. There was nothing mean about Lafayette’s hopes and fantasies.
It was England’s inability to make the kill that finally convinced the government of France that outright support should not be withheld. This was strategically right—it always had been—but now it was tactically correct. Yet as Louis xvi’s advisers well knew, such a course of action meant war with England. England’s control of the Atlantic had to be broken or evaded if first-class French troops were to be landed in America, and without French troops stalemate or compromise was a more likely end to the war than American victory. But the only hope of overcoming the English navy was with a combined Franco-Spanish naval force. France could not commit herself openly, therefore, to the American cause without Spain.
Spain was slow to move. Spain claimed vast unmapped territories in the West and Southwest of America. Louisiana belonged to Spain, and she thought of the Mississippi as a Spanish river. Florida, now British, had been Spanish, and Spain wanted it back. Would a victorious America respect her territorial rights? Her government doubted it. Also the Spaniards thought that one successful revolution might lead to another—and the next time might be in Spanish possessions in South America. The Spanish ministers were perhaps dilatory, but they enjoyed clarity of vision.
Had this been all, Spain would have been impossible to move, but Spain, too, had suffered searing humiliations. Gibraltar, a part of the Spanish homeland, was in British possession; Jamaica, in Spanish eyes a nest of detestable mercantile pirates who preyed on her colonies, was almost as bad. To get Gibraltar back, to win Jamaica, and to have Florida restored made the American gamble seem just worthwhile. It was hard going for France’s diplomats, but they knew from long experience how to handle Spain. And, alas for England, they had more surprising and unusual success elsewhere. Britain’s imperious handling of neutral shipping had irritated and outraged the Dutch, their agelong allies. Thus French diplomats were able to persuade the Dutch to keep out of the conflict, to declare their neutrality, which was a bitter blow for England, who needed the Dutch navy to counterbalance France’s acquisition of the Spanish.
And so finally, after 1779, the American revolt became a global war, the third act of the great imperial conflict between France and Britain, and it spelled the end of the possibility of Anglo-American compromise. There had been great sympathy in England for the American cause; once France and Spain were allied with America, that sympathy died, drowned in a surge of patriotism. The city of Bristol, which had been ardently pro-American, turned around completely and supported Lord North. Until the entry of the French complete victory, although desirable, was not necessary for the British. In America stalemate, combined with soaring inflation and an unpaid army on the brink of dissolution, might have strengthened the powerful loyalist party sufficiently to secure peace. Time therefore, so long as help from Europe was kept to a minimum, was on England’s side. With France and Spain as belligerents, British victories became essential—victories over the colonists and victories over Spain and France. The British knew that Gibraltar would be invested, France’s allies in India would take the offensive, Jamaica would become a target, and English commerce throughout the world would be a convenient and easy prey for privateers. And England had no allies. Without the Dutch her navy was outnumbered, and her army always had been pitifully small. Quick victories were essential, and quick victories eluded England.