We owe it all to France and King Louis XVI

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In the USA, we tend to selectively omit (or at least not accurately reflect) true historical facts in our collective understanding of history.

Our revolution being funded by King Louis XVI and the French monarchy is not the first thought we have when we watch fireworks on the 4th of July. Nor do we think of the direct causal effect of American War funding with King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette losing their lives due to US war funding bankrupting France… but let’s revisit our history.

The French government regarded the American revolution as an opportunity to weaken the British empire. Since its defeat in the Seven Years’ War, France had been rebuilding its military power and mending diplomatic fences.

Humbling the arrogant British would be sweet revenge and would have the practical advantage of evening out the balance of power in Europe.

The French foreign minister, Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, saw the potential advantages of aiding the American rebels. A prudent statesman, he would not lightly risk the possibility of a disastrous war with Britain. Differences of opinion within the French government also inclined him to caution.

King Louis XVI was dubious about helping enemies of a monarch with whom he was at peace. The Comptroller General of Finances, Baron Turgot, passionately declared that a war with Britain would push France into bankruptcy.

Vergennes persuaded the King and his fellow ministers to agree to a policy that he considered both practical and safe, providing covert assistance to the Americans. A sum of 1 million livres was set aside for this purpose.

The French Alliance :: The Politics of War

The fiscal policy of the Continental Congress was dire. France was trickling funding, the Continental Congress was unraveling.

For the want of money and credit, the campaign of 1778 was closed at the beginning of autumn, and the Congress felt the necessity of adopting some extraordinary efforts for redeeming the bills of credit. They taxed the several States; and in January, 1779, they called upon them, by a resolution, to “pay in their respective quotas of fifteen millions of dollars,” for the current year, and “six millions of dollars annually, for eighteen years, from and after the year 1779, as a fund for sinking the emissions.” All efforts were vain. Prices rose as the bills sunk in value, and every kind of trade was embarrassed. The Congress were sorely perplexed. Only about four million dollars had been obtained by loan from Europe, and present negotiations appeared futile. No French army was yet upon our soil; no French coin gladdened the eyes and hearts of the American soldiers, whose pay was much in arrears. A French fleet had, indeed, been upon our coast; but after mocking our hopes with broken promises of support in Rhode Island, had gone to the West Indies to fight battles for France. The Continental bills rapidly depreciated, and early in 1781, became worthless. I have before me an account rendered to Captain Allan McLane, in January, 1781, for merchandise purchased, in which appear the following items, among others: “1 pair of boots, $600; 6 yds. chintz, $150 a yard, $900; 1 skein of thread, $10.”

The Congress resumed their sessions in Philadelphia, at the beginning of July, 1778, and in August they began to devote two days each week to a consideration of financial matters. In September they issued fifteen million dollars in bills of credit. Their depreciation became more rapid as the year drew to a close, and the Congress saw no other resource than in loans or subsidies from Europe. They instructed Dr. Franklin to assure the French monarch that they “hoped protection from his power and magnanimity.” This humiliating step was not approved by some of the members of Congress, because they were unwilling to have their country placed under the protection of any foreign power which was likely to be the protection of the lamb by the wolf. Eight States voted for the measure. Aid was hoped for from the Netherlands, and Henry Laurens was sent to the Hague to negotiate a loan.

The estimated expenses of the government of the United States for the year 1779 was over sixty million dollars in paper money, for which no adequate provision was made.

Military Funding in the American Revolution

France provided funding and eventually military support.

From the outbreak of armed rebellion in 1775, many in France sympathized with the colonists. Young, idealistic French officers like the Marquis de Lafayette volunteered their services and in many cases their personal wealth to help equip, train and lead the fledgling Continental army. The French government hoped to redress the balance of power that resulted from the French humiliation in the Seven Years Wars, which gave considerable economic and military advantages to Britain. While maintaining formal neutrality, France assisted in supplying arms, uniforms and other military supplies to the American colonists.

This clandestine assistance became open after the defeat of General Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777, which demonstrated the possibility of British defeat in the conflict and led to French recognition of the colonies in February 1778. As a result of the victory of the Continental forces at Saratoga, Benjamin Franklin, who had gone to Paris as ambassador in 1776, was able to negotiate a Treaty of Amity and Commerce and a Treaty of Alliance with France. From this point, French support became increasingly significant. The French extended considerable financial support to the Congressional forces. France also supplied vital military arms and supplies, and loaned money to pay for their purchase.

French military aid was also a decisive factor in the American victory. French land and sea forces fought on the side of the American colonists against the British. At the same time, British and French (and to a lesser extent, Dutch and Spanish) forces fought for colonial wealth and empire around the world. From 1778 through 1783 — two years after the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown — French forces fought the British in the West Indies, Africa and India.

From the perspective of the American Revolution, however, the high point of French support is the landing of five battalions of French infantry and artillery in Rhode Island in 1780. In 1781, these French troops under the command of Count Rochambeau marched south to Virginia where they joined Continental forces under Washington and Lafayette. Cornwallis, encamped on the Yorktown peninsula, hoped to be rescued by the British navy. A French fleet under the command of Admiral DeGrasse intercepted and, after a fierce battle lasting several days, defeated the British fleet and forced it to withdraw. This left the French navy to land heavy siege cannon and other supplies and trapped Cornwallis on the Yorktown peninsula.

The French Contribution to the American War of Independence

Funding the American Revolutionary war, planted the economic seeds for the French Revolution.

It was debt that led to the long-running fiscal crisis of the French government. On the eve of the revolution, France was effectively bankrupt. Extravagant expenditures on luxuries by Louis XVI, whose rule began in 1774, were compounded by debts that were run up during the reign of his even-more-profligate predecessor, Louis XV (who reigned from 1715 to 1774). Heavy expenditures to conduct the losing Seven Years’ War against Britain (1756-1763), and France’s spiteful attempt to poke a finger in the eye of the British by backing the Americans in their War of Independence, ran the tab up even further.

Causes of the French Revolution

So when you watch the fireworks, think not only of the gratitude that we owe to Washington and the Continental Army, but also of  King Louis XVI.



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  1. Tho I guess the French did okay with the sale since they didn’t own it anyway; and as far as I’m concerned, it should revert to the rightful owners. Put that in your  lusty tobacco pipe and smoke it Tommy J. And watch out for the fireworks in the afterworld.  

  2. the French people, the matter of the American colonists overthrowing a ruling monarchy was not lost on the French people, and served to fan the flames of revolution within their own land.

    Although the role of the Dutch was much more clandestine, I understand that John Adams, who was in Europe during this time, did manage, through dogged negotiations and diplomacy, to obtain important loans from the Dutch government, which aided the American cause as well.

    But, in the end, when Louis XVI witnessed revolution breaking out in his own country, it seems quite likely that he had second thoughts when he became the only French king to ever be executed (by guillotine) on January 21, 1793.

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