The Treaty of Paris was the agreement between England and the United States which officially ended the American Revolution. It was just one of a series of agreements signed between the belligerents which collectively are called the Peace of Paris.
It is important to remember that England was fighting three other countries while they were fighting us. France formally joined our cause in February 1778, while Spain declared war on England in June 1779 and, due to Dutch cooperation with America, England declared war on The Netherlands in December 1780. Lest you think these other nations came to our aid simply because they loved our idea of liberty for all, you should think again. Both France and Spain were ruled by absolute monarchs and The Netherlands, although technically a republic, was led by a Stadtholder, an executive with significant authority. To be clear, officials in every nation in Europe were scared to death of our American concept of equality for all and an end to monarchies because that meant an end to their power and privilege. France and Spain did not care if America won just so long as England lost. Both nations also hoped to recover lands they lost to England in the Seven Years War. Additionally, France was confident they could dominate American policy once the colonies were free from England’s control.
In any event, France did commit some resources to the American colonies, but not as much and not as early as many commonly believe. They were probably waiting to see if America was a good investment.
Specifically, in July 1778, their navy participated in a failed attack on Newport, Rhode Island. Then, in September 1779, France sent their navy and a contingent of soldiers to attempt to take Savannah, but the result was another costly defeat.
Not until July 11, 1780, did a “permanent” force of 5,500 French soldiers arrive in America. More than a year later, this division participated in our victory over the British at Yorktown. In other words, it took almost 2 ½ years after committing to help us before France finally sent a strong contingent of soldiers to our aid.
Financially, the French committed to providing financial aid to America when they signed the treaty with us in February 1778. However, no money was given to the colonies until May 1781 when King Louis XVI gifted them six million livres and loaned them another ten million.
Thus, French financial aid did not arrive until three and a half years after they promised it. That is not to minimize the generosity of the king or to say the money was not appreciated and helpful because it was. It simply points out that for all but the last few months of the war, America was on its own.
Finally, one could argue the greatest help France and Spain gave us was not troops or money, but simply the threat those countries posed to England since this danger forced the English to send their forces to locations other than America.
WHY IT MATTERS So why does it matter to us today that we understand the background behind the world-wide conflict that ended with the Treaty of Paris?
The American Revolution was just one part of a larger conflict that was spread across several parts of the globe and involving multiple nations. While our War for Independence is preeminent in our minds, understanding how all the parts fit together allows us to better understand how we came to achieve our freedom from England.
As Americans, we must always keep in mind that the French played a key part in only one prominent battle, Yorktown, and did not provide any permanent contingent of soldiers until 1780 and no money until 1781.
The importance of understanding these facts does not lie in diminishing France’s role in the American Revolution, but rather in trumpeting the incredible achievements our Forefathers made in securing our freedom.
It was Americans who did the fighting and the bleeding and the starving and the freezing during our War for Independence. Remembering this does justice to our ancestors.
SUGGESTED READING A classic account of the French and Indian War and the long running conflict between France and England for possession of North America is Francis Parkman’s “The Battle for North America”. First published in 1889, it is still the best book about this critical episode that so deeply affected the founding of America.
PLACES TO VISIT Fort Ticonderoga is an incredibly beautiful place to visit. The site of numerous conflicts in the 1700’s, it is the best-preserved fort from that era in America. It is truly one of our nation’s treasures. Until next time, may your motto be “Ducit Amor Patriae”, Love of country leads me.
Tom Hand is an alumnus of West Point and lives on Ford Plantation. He has his own website, americanacorner.com, and encourages you to take a look.