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Liberté Egalité Animosité
When the French Revolution broke out two hundred years ago this month, Americans greeted it enthusiastically. After all, without the French we could never have become free. But the cheers faded as the brutality of the convulsion emerged—and we saw we were still only a feeble newborn facing a giant, intimidating world power.
July/August 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 5
There were two great revolutions against European monarchs in the late eighteenth century. In the first, the French nation helped Americans achieve their independence from George III. Without that help our revolution could not have succeeded. Yet when the French rebelled against Louis XVI, Americans hailed their action, then hesitated over it, and finally recoiled from it, causing bitterness in France and among some Americans. Why had the “sister republics” not embraced each other when they had the opportunity? Instead of marching together, the revolutions, so similar in their ideals, roots, and principles, passed each other at shouting distance. What began in mutual encouragement ended in mutual misapprehension.
The French philosophes hoped the American Revolution would weaken the hold of Louis XVI’s repressive establishment.
The root of the trouble lay in the equivocal nature of the aid France extended to America in the 1770s. The American Revolution wore two different faces in France, and each was one of the many faces of Benjamin Franklin. On the one hand, Louis XVI was using British colonists to discommode his rival, George III, and Franklin was the courtier who pointed out the advantages of such a course to Louis’s ministers. A famous contemporary image of Franklin is the porcelain statuette group by Lemire, in which Franklin bows to the French king, who presents him with the Treaty of 1778, which allied us to France (a document that would be the subject of heated controversy just over a decade later).
A more complex picture of the diplomatic forces at work is the allegorical print by Étienne Pallièr, which shows Franklin helping unleash the French Hercules, who bashes with his club Britannia and her cowering lion. On the right side of the print, Neptune dispatches the French navy, carrying cannon forged by Vulcan. All the gods of neoclassicism move to accomplish the will of Louis XVI’s government. One king rebukes another in the balance of imperial politics. (Although the Declaration of Independence had been specifically crafted to bring France into the conflict, Louis responded only after the first substantial defeat of an English army at Saratoga.)
But to the philosophes of the French Enlightenment, Franklin bore quite another face—himself a neoclassical god now, Prometheus, the tamer of lightning and the scourge of tyrants, the scientist and the philosopher of freedom. That’s the way Fragonard drew Franklin and Marguerite Gérard engraved him, adding the heroic hexameter of Turgot, Eripuit coelo fulmen, sceptrumque tyrannis (“He tore from heaven lightning, and the scepter from kings”). Turgot, the reforming economist, had to circulate his line of poetry anonymously, since the plural for kings (tyrannis) showed that French thinkers hoped the American Revolution would effect changes in their own society, weakening the hold of Louis XVI’s establishment, which had censored their works. Franklin encouraged this view of America’s meaning for the future, joining the Paris-based Masonic lodge of the Nine Sisters, where hopes of a revolution in France were harbored.
Some of the officers who went to serve in the American Revolution—notably Lafayette, Rochambeau, Chastellux, and Admiral d’Estaing—were enlightened critics of their own government as well as supporters of American aspirations, but George Washington never forgot that the motive of King Louis in sending these auxiliaries was not any devotion to antimonarchical principle but a maneuver to regain some of the holdings in the New World he had lost to England after the Seven Years’ War.
Washington alone took the measure of French aid in both its aspects. He was a champion of the Enlightenment in areas like his opposition to established churches, but he also had an eye to the practical conditions for exercising freedom. (In the current debates in Congress over Central America, he would definitely agree with those who think free elections mean little to people who cannot feed their own children.) He meant to keep America free from dependence on France as well as from submission to England.
When Lafayette, for example, tried to organize an army to recapture Canada, Washington expressed to Congress his vigorous objections. He wanted to use France, not be used by it. The independence of America could only be maintained by keeping it nonaligned between the great powers. The historian Edmund S. Morgan has convincingly traced Washington’s neutrality policy back to the touchiness he felt about accepting French help from a king with his own designs in mind. Washington’s caution was justified years later, at the end of the war over the American colonies, when it came out that Louis was negotiating with George III to grant Spain all American territory across the Alleghenies.