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How much did helping the American Revolution cost France?

How much did helping the American Revolution cost France?


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I recall reading somewhere that the expenses of the war were ruinous for France and that the gains didn't offset them, this being one of the causes that forced Louis XVI to convene the Estates General (and what ensued is well-known).

Is it true? Did the American Revolution ruin France's already unhealthy finances? Was is a the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back or was it just a drop in an ocean of debt that had no overall impact on the French budget?

(this is partly inspired by this question).


From Wikipedia -

In all the French spent 1.3 billion livres to support the Americans directly, in addition to the money it spent fighting Britain on land and sea outside the U.S.

France's status as a great modern power was affirmed by the war, but it was detrimental to the country's finances. Even though France's European territories were not affected, victory in a war against Britain with battles like the decisive siege of Yorktown in 1781 had a large financial cost which severely degraded fragile finances and increased the national debt. France gained little except that it weakened its main strategic enemy and gained a new, fast-growing ally that could become a welcome trading partner. However, the trade never materialized, and in 1793 the U.S. proclaimed its neutrality in the war between Britain and France. Most historians argue that France primarily sought revenge against Britain for the loss of territory in America in the Treaty of Paris. However, Dull, in 1975, argued that France intervened because of dispassionate calculation, not because of Anglophobia or a desire to avenge the loss of Canada.

Wiki Source

It was just another contributing factor that led up to the French Revolution so it's worth researching the causes of that as well. Ironic that France in trying to weaken her old enemy Britain actually contributed to the downfall of her own monarchy.


Guided History


France went through many major political upheavals from 1790 onwards. The decadence of the monarchy coupled with a large amount of the population living in poverty resulted in one of the greatest revolutions Europe has ever seen. France entered the nineteenth century amidst struggles for power, bloody reigns of tyrannical leaders, and an underlying sense of dissatisfaction at the new governing bodies that took turns replacing the old regime. After many uprisings and the loss of many more lives, France finally brought itself to stability under the rule of Louis Napoleon, in the form of the Second French Empire.

The initial revolution in France united the people against a common enemy, King Louis. After his disposal, there were many factions fighting for power. The revolution did not turn out the way many participants had expected. The constant fights for control set the stage for the rebellions that defined France in the mid-nineteenth century. After the end of the Jacobean Terror, Napoleon rose in power for a short period of time, followed by a reinstated monarchy. It was against this new monarchy that the people banded together again during the July Revolution and the June Rebellion. The final Revolution of 1848 and the coup led by Louis Napoleon led to the end of the uprisings in France and a stabilized central government. The sources here cover all these major events in French history, through the first hand accounts of people alive during this time and the research done by historians. All sources give a comprehensive view of the trials France endured from its first revolution onwards.

  • Anderson, F.M., ed. “‘Levée en Masse’.” The Constitutions and Other Select Documents Illustrative of the History of France, 1789-1907, 2d Ed. Minneapolis: H.W. Wilson Co., 1908

This article, written during the original French Revolution, shows us the variety of different roles that people were expected to fill to make the revolution a success. For example, the men were expected to become soldiers, the women responsible for maintaining the tents and soldier’s clothing and food, and the national buildings were to be turned into barracks. The expectations for a successful revolt were strict, and nobody was expected to leave their post. This source gives an excellent look into the way lives were changed by the revolution, and how it was organized by the leaders.

  • Robespierre, Maximilien. “‘Louis Must Perish because Our Country Must Live!'”. Hazeltine, Mayo, ed. Famous Orations. New York: Collier & Son, 1903, p. 117.

After Louis was overthrown, the people of France no longer had a common cause to rally behind. The confusion and uncertainty that followed resulted in struggles for power between competing factions. In this essay, the leader of the Jacobeans, Maximilien Robespierre, argues his ideas for progress to the people. He talks about how the king must be killed, as his crimes against the people of France were unpardonable. This article gives us a look into the ideas of the man who would later cause the Terror that killed thousands of French citizens. This also gives us a way to see the rationale behind the Jacobean Terror through the words of its leader.

  • Hugo, Victor. “Against Capital Punishment.” Bryan, William Jennings, ed. The World’s Famous Orations. Vol. 7. New York: Funk & Wagnall, 1906, p. 193.

In this article, we get a look into the opinions of an ordinary, albeit well-known, citizen in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1848. After years of bloodshed from the Terror, Napoleon’s wars, and the rebellions of 1830 and 1832, it is understandable that people would be against something such as capital punishment. Here, Victor Hugo gives us his opinion on the matter. He denounces the ‘blood for blood’ that is the death penalty, implying that it is unnecessary and immoral, similar to the deaths of those rebelling. This article is valuable in providing the reader with the opinions people would have held after 50 years of bloodshed and instability, and why they would have felt this way.

Here, a man living in Paris at the time of the Revolution of 1848 gives us a detailed account of two days during the uprising. He describes everything from the weather of that day to the times of major events throughout the rebellion. While many other primary sources are often the opinion of the writer, this source is purely description. The author writes what his experiences in the great crowds of the revolution without throwing in personal opinion.

The First French Revolution and Napoleonic France

A nineteenth century print of the leaders throughout the French Revolution

This book is excellent for an overall look at the original French revolution. The author starts with the major people involved, and leads into the policies and actions that led to the discontent of the people. It does not only dwell on the political sides of things, however. Doyle takes a look at how societal norms of the time and religion played a role in sparking the overthrow of the monarchy. He also touches on the aftermath of the revolution, the fights between the leaders of it, and finishes with the introduction of Napoleon as a major figure in the government. This will give the reader a general background of the entire Revolution while detailing some major aspects of it.

This documentary covers the rise of Napoleon and his empire. It describes in detail every aspect of Napoleon’s life, from his childhood in Corsica to the final days of his reign over France. It looks at his policies while he was emperor, with a focus on the wars he waged against Italy, Austria and Russia. It ends with a look at Napoleon’s life in exile, and the legacy he left behind that still effects Europe today.

Le Sacre de Napoléon by Jacques-Louis David

The July Revolution of 1830

  • Pilbeam, Pamela. “The ‘Three Glorious Days’: The Revolution of 1830 in Provincial France”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

The author of this article takes a look at the governments of France after the initial revolution and questions how they led to the other rebellions in Paris in the nineteenth century. While the article does not go into detail about the July Revolution, it gives the reader much information on the bigger picture. She explains the way that leaders after the revolution centralized power and the effect this had on the people in both the provinces and the cities. The article concludes with a section on the local impacts throughout the country that were a result of the July Revolution, making it a great source for a more in-depth look into the July revolution’s causes and effects.

Eugène Delacroix- La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple. The famous painting of the Revolution of 1830 being led by Lady Liberty.

  • Harsin, Jill. “Barricades: The War of the Streets in Revolutionary Paris, 1830-1848”. USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Barricades focuses on not the political happenings of the time, but the people behind the uprisings and those pushing for change. The author uses primary sources such as court records, articles and newspapers to bring together a narrative on how the working class and the bourgeoisie came together to achieve common goals. It gives both an overview of the situations leading to the formation of barricades and a look at some of the details of the turbulence of this rebellion.

The June Rebellion- 1832

This source is incredibly valuable for information regarding the barricades that became a hallmark of French rebellion. Traugott looks into the history of the barricade and the other forms of protest and how they have evolved over time. He then brings this history to France in the post-revolutionary period. He looks at the major groups that contributed to the barricaded revolutions, such as students and poor workers. He goes beyond the literal meaning of the barricades and into the symbol of strength and change they became for the people participating in the anti-government movements.

An unknown artist’s rendition of the June Rebellion.

While this novel is a work of fiction, the setting is very real. The author himself experienced the June Rebellion and participated in the action at the barricades. While the rebellion itself is only a short section in an otherwise large book, Hugo manages to give the reader a great idea of what was happening and who the major players in this uprising were. If the reader is able to shift through the romanticized details of this fight, this book can be a good resource for a general background on the June rebellion.

The book that made the June Rebellion famous.

The Revolution of 1848

  • de Lamartine, Alphonse. “Full Text of ‘History of the French Revolution of 1848’.” http://archive.org/stream/historyoffrenchr00lama/historyoffrenchr00lama_djvu.txt.

Alphonse de Lamartine, the author of this book, was very involved in French politics in the mid-nineteenth century. He was a high-ranking official in the provisional government and a presidential candidate in later years. Here, he explains many of the political events in France at the time of the Revolution of 1848. He takes us from the initial demands for liberal government reform to the social changes of the Industrial revolution that helped bring about the desire for the reforms. He mainly focuses on the organization of the working class that was the driving force behind the revolution, and adds in his opinion on major events here and there. For a look at the background of this revolution, this book gives a decent explanation. What makes this book stand out from others is the look at the working class’ contribution to the reforms, which can be overlooked in other sources.

Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848 by Henri Felix Emmanuel Philippoteaux

  • Foster, George G. and Dunn English, Thomas. “The French Revolution of 1848 its Causes, Actors, Events and Influences”. Britain: British Library Historical Print Editions, 2011.

This book gives us a general look at the major objects of the revolution. It gives descriptions on the leaders of the groups demanding change, as well as the major events throughout the days of revolt and major influences of the time. It also provides illustrations from newspapers and posters to provide the reader with a look at how society viewed the revolution. While not incredibly detailed, it is a great source for understanding major parts of this particular rebellion.


The Demand for Fur: Hats, Pelts and Prices

However much hats may be considered an accessory today, they were for centuries a mandatory part of everyday dress, for both men and women. Of course styles changed, and, in response to the vagaries of fashion and politics, hats took on various forms and shapes, from the high-crowned, broad-brimmed hat of the first two Stuarts to the conically-shaped, plainer hat of the Puritans. The Restoration of Charles II of England in 1660 and the Glorious Revolution in 1689 brought their own changes in style (Clarke, 1982, chapter 1). What remained a constant was the material from which hats were made – wool felt. The wool came from various animals, but towards the end of the fifteenth century beaver wool began to be predominate. Over time, beaver hats became increasingly popular eventually dominating the market. Only in the nineteenth century did silk replace beaver in high-fashion men’s hats.

Wool Felt

Furs have long been classified as either fancy or staple. Fancy furs are those demanded for the beauty and luster of their pelt. These furs – mink, fox, otter – are fashioned by furriers into garments or robes. Staple furs are sought for their wool. All staple furs have a double coating of hair with long, stiff, smooth hairs called guard hairs which protect the shorter, softer hair, called wool, that grows next to the animal skin. Only the wool can be felted. Each of the shorter hairs is barbed and once the barbs at the ends of the hair are open, the wool can be compressed into a solid piece of material called felt. The prime staple fur has been beaver, although muskrat and rabbit have also been used.

Wool felt was used for over two centuries to make high-fashion hats. Felt is stronger than a woven material. It will not tear or unravel in a straight line it is more resistant to water, and it will hold its shape even if it gets wet. These characteristics made felt the prime material for hatters especially when fashion called for hats with large brims. The highest quality hats would be made fully from beaver wool, whereas lower quality hats included inferior wool, such as rabbit.

Felt Making

The transformation of beaver skins into felt and then hats was a highly skilled activity. The process required first that the beaver wool be separated from the guard hairs and the skin, and that some of the wool have open barbs, since felt required some open-barbed wool in the mixture. Felt dates back to the nomads of Central Asia, who are said to have invented the process of felting and made their tents from this light but durable material. Although the art of felting disappeared from much of western Europe during the first millennium, felt-making survived in Russia, Sweden, and Asia Minor. As a result of the Medieval Crusades, felting was reintroduced through the Mediterranean into France (Crean, 1962).

In Russia, the felting industry was based on the European beaver (castor fiber). Given their long tradition of working with beaver pelts, the Russians had perfected the art of combing out the short barbed hairs from among the longer guard hairs, a technology that they safeguarded. As a consequence, the early felting trades in England and France had to rely on beaver wool imported from Russia, although they also used domestic supplies of wool from other animals, such rabbit, sheep and goat. But by the end of the seventeenth century, Russian supplies were drying up, reflecting the serious depletion of the European beaver population.

Coincident with the decline in European beaver stocks was the emergence of a North American trade. North American beaver (castor canadensis) was imported through agents in the English, French and Dutch colonies. Although many of the pelts were shipped to Russia for initial processing, the growth of the beaver market in England and France led to the development of local technologies, and more knowledge of the art of combing. Separating the beaver wool from the felt was only the first step in the felting process. It was also necessary that some of the barbs on the short hairs be raised or open. On the animal these hairs were naturally covered with keratin to prevent the barbs from opening, thus to make felt, the keratin had to be stripped from at least some of the hairs. The process was difficult to refine and entailed considerable experimentation by felt-makers. For instance, one felt maker “bundled [the skins] in a sack of linen and boiled [them] for twelve hours in water containing several fatty substances and nitric acid” (Crean, 1962, p. 381). Although such processes removed the keratin, they did so at the price of a lower quality wool.

The opening of the North American trade not only increased the supply of skins for the felting industry, it also provided a subset of skins whose guard hairs had already been removed and the keratin broken down. Beaver pelts imported from North America were classified as either parchment beaver (castor sec – dry beaver), or coat beaver (castor gras – greasy beaver). Parchment beaver were from freshly caught animals, whose skins were simply dried before being presented for trade. Coat beaver were skins that had been worn by the Indians for a year or more. With wear, the guard hairs fell out and the pelt became oily and more pliable. In addition, the keratin covering the shorter hairs broke down. By the middle of the seventeenth century, hatters and felt-makers came to learn that parchment and coat beaver could be combined to produce a strong, smooth, pliable, top-quality waterproof material.

Until the 1720s, beaver felt was produced with relatively fixed proportions of coat and parchment skins, which led to periodic shortages of one or the other type of pelt. The constraint was relaxed when carotting was developed, a chemical process by which parchment skins were transformed into a type of coat beaver. The original carrotting formula consisted of salts of mercury diluted in nitric acid, which was brushed on the pelts. The use of mercury was a big advance, but it also had serious health consequences for hatters and felters, who were forced to breathe the mercury vapor for extended periods. The expression “mad as a hatter” dates from this period, as the vapor attacked the nervous systems of these workers.

The Prices of Parchment and Coat Beaver

Drawn from the accounts of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Table 1 presents some eighteenth century prices of parchment and coat beaver pelts. From 1713 to 1726, before the carotting process had become established, coat beaver generally fetched a higher price than parchment beaver, averaging 6.6 shillings per pelt as compared to 5.5 shillings. Once carotting was widely used, however, the prices were reversed, and from 1730 to 1770 parchment exceeded coat in almost every year. The same general pattern is seen in the Paris data, although there the reversal was delayed, suggesting slower diffusion in France of the carotting technology. As Crean (1962, p. 382) notes, Nollet’s L’Art de faire des chapeaux included the exact formula, but it was not published until 1765.

A weighted average of parchment and coat prices in London reveals three episodes. From 1713 to 1722 prices were quite stable, fluctuating within the narrow band of 5.0 and 5.5 shillings per pelt. During the period, 1723 to 1745, prices moved sharply higher and remained in the range of 7 to 9 shillings. The years 1746 to 1763 saw another big increase to over 12 shillings per pelt. There are far fewer prices available for Paris, but we do know that in the period 1739 to 1753 the trend was also sharply higher with prices more than doubling.

Table 1 Price of Beaver Pelts in Britain: 1713-1763 (shillings per skin)

Year Parchment Coat Average a Year Parchment Coat Averagea
1713 5.21 4.62 5.03 1739 8.51 7.11 8.05
1714 5.24 7.86 5.66 1740 8.44 6.66 7.88
1715 4.88 5.49 1741 8.30 6.83 7.84
1716 4.68 8.81 5.16 1742 7.72 6.41 7.36
1717 5.29 8.37 5.65 1743 8.98 6.74 8.27
1718 4.77 7.81 5.22 1744 9.18 6.61 8.52
1719 5.30 6.86 5.51 1745 9.76 6.08 8.76
1720 5.31 6.05 5.38 1746 12.73 7.18 10.88
1721 5.27 5.79 5.29 1747 10.68 6.99 9.50
1722 4.55 4.97 4.55 1748 9.27 6.22 8.44
1723 8.54 5.56 7.84 1749 11.27 6.49 9.77
1724 7.47 5.97 7.17 1750 17.11 8.42 14.00
1725 5.82 6.62 5.88 1751 14.31 10.42 12.90
1726 5.41 7.49 5.83 1752 12.94 10.18 11.84
1727 7.22 1753 10.71 11.97 10.87
1728 8.13 1754 12.19 12.68 12.08
1729 9.56 1755 12.05 12.04 11.99
1730 8.71 1756 13.46 12.02 12.84
1731 6.27 1757 12.59 11.60 12.17
1732 7.12 1758 13.07 11.32 12.49
1733 8.07 1759 15.99 14.68
1734 7.39 1760 13.37 13.06 13.22
1735 8.33 1761 10.94 13.03 11.36
1736 8.72 7.07 8.38 1762 13.17 16.33 13.83
1737 7.94 6.46 7.50 1763 16.33 17.56 16.34
1738 8.95 6.47 8.32

a A weighted average of the prices of parchment, coat and half parchment beaver pelts. Weights are based on the trade in these types of furs at Fort Albany. Prices of the individual types of pelts are not available for the years, 1727 to 1735.

Source: Carlos and Lewis, 1999.

The Demand for Beaver Hats

The main cause of the rising beaver pelt prices in England and France was the increasing demand for beaver hats, which included hats made exclusively with beaver wool and referred to as “beaver hats,” and those hats containing a combination of beaver and a lower cost wool, such as rabbit. These were called “felt hats.” Unfortunately, aggregate consumption series for the eighteenth century Europe are not available. We do, however, have Gregory King’s contemporary work for England which provides a good starting point. In a table entitled “Annual Consumption of Apparell, anno 1688,” King calculated that consumption of all types of hats was about 3.3 million, or nearly one hat per person. King also included a second category, caps of all sorts, for which he estimated consumption at 1.6 million (Harte, 1991, p. 293). This means that as early as 1700, the potential market for hats in England alone was nearly 5 million per year. Over the next century, the rising demand for beaver pelts was a result of a number factors including population growth, a greater export market, a shift toward beaver hats from hats made of other materials, and a shift from caps to hats.

The British export data indicate that demand for beaver hats was growing not just in England, but in Europe as well. In 1700 a modest 69,500 beaver hats were exported from England and almost the same number of felt hats but by 1760, slightly over 500,000 beaver hats and 370,000 felt halts were shipped from English ports (Lawson, 1943, app. I). In total, over the seventy years to 1770, 21 million beaver and felt hats were exported from England. In addition to the final product, England exported the raw material, beaver pelts. In 1760, £15,000 in beaver pelts were exported along with a range of other furs. The hats and the pelts tended to go to different parts of Europe. Raw pelts were shipped mainly to northern Europe, including Germany, Flanders, Holland and Russia whereas hats went to the southern European markets of Spain and Portugal. In 1750, Germany imported 16,500 beaver hats, while Spain imported 110,000 and Portugal 175,000 (Lawson, 1943, appendices F & G). Over the first six decades of the eighteenth century, these markets grew dramatically, such that the value of beaver hat sales to Portugal alone was £89,000 in 1756-1760, representing about 300,000 hats or two-thirds of the entire export trade.


The Polish Patriot Who Helped Americans Beat the British

Two months after Ben Franklin helped draft the Declaration of Independence, a surprise visitor walked into his Philadelphia shop. The young man’s curly brown hair cascaded down toward his shoulders, and his English was so broken he switched to French. Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a 30-year-old Pole just off the boat from Europe via the Caribbean, introduced himself and offered to enlist as an officer in the new American nation’s army.

Franklin, curious, quizzed Kosciuszko about his education: a military academy in Warsaw, studies in Paris in civil engineering, including fort building. Franklin asked him for letters of recommendation. Kosciuszko had none.

Instead, the petitioner asked to take a placement exam in engineering and military architecture. Franklin’s bemused answer revealed the inexperience of the Continental Army. “Who would proctor such an exam,” Franklin asked, “when there is no one here who is even familiar with those subjects?”

On August 30, 1776, armed with Franklin’s recommendation and high marks on a geometry exam, Kosciuszko walked into Independence Hall (then the Pennsylvania State House) and introduced himself to the Continental Congress.

In his native Poland, Kosciuszko is known for leading the Kosciuszko Uprising of 1794, a brave insurrection against foreign rule by Russia and Prussia. But that came before the liberty-loving Pole played a key but overlooked role in the American Revolution. Though not nearly as well known as the Marquis de Lafayette, America’s most celebrated foreign ally of the era, Kosciuszko (pronounced cuz-CHOOSE-co), was in many ways his equal. Both volunteered with an idealistic belief in democracy, both had a major impact on a climactic battle in the Revolution, both returned home to play prominent roles in their own country’s history, and both enjoyed the friendship and high esteem of American Founding Fathers. Kosciuszko did something more: he held his American friends to the highest ideals of equality on the issue of slavery.

Kosciuszko was born in 1746 and grew up in a manor house, where 31 peasant families worked for his father. His early education included the democratic ideals of John Locke and ancient Greeks. Trained at Warsaw’s School of Chivalry, he enrolled in Paris’ Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, where his real goal was to learn civil engineering and the strategies of Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, Europe’s authority on forts and sieges.

Back in Poland, Kosciuszko was hired to tutor Louise Sosnowska, a wealthy lord’s daughter, and fell in love with her. They tried to elope in the fall of 1775 after Lord Sosnowski refused Kosciuszko’s request to marry her and instead arranged a marriage with a prince. According to the story Kosciuszko told various friends, Sosnowski’s guards overtook their carriage on horseback, dragged it to a stop, knocked Kosciuszko unconscious, and took Louise home by force. Thwarted, heartbroken, nearly broke – and in some accounts, fearing vengeance from Sosnowski -- Kosciuszko embarked on his long years as an expatriate. Back in Paris, he heard that the American colonists needed engineers and set sail across the Atlantic in June 1776. Detoured when his ship wrecked off Martinique, he arrived in Philadelphia two months later.

His Paris studies, though incomplete, quickly made him useful to the Americans. John Hancock appointed him a colonel in the Continental Army in October, and Franklin hired him to design and build forts on the Delaware River to help defend Philadelphia from the British navy. Kosciuszko befriended General Horatio Gates, commander of the Continental Army’s northern division, and in May 1777, Gates sent him north to New York to evaluate Fort Ticonderoga’s defenses. There, Kosciuszko and others advised that a nearby hill needed to be fortified with cannons. Superiors ignored his advice, believing it impossible to move cannons up the steep slope. That July, the British, under the command of General John Burgoyne, arrived from Canada with 8,000 men and sent six cannons up the hill, firing into the fort and forcing the Americans to evacuate. A floating log bridge designed by Kosciuszko helped them escape. 

Kosciuszko’s greatest contribution to the American Revolution came later that year in the Battle of Saratoga, when the defenses along the Hudson River helped the Continental Army to victory. The British war plan called for troops from Canada and New York City to seize the Hudson Valley and divide the colonies in two. Kosciuszko identified Bemis Heights, a bluff overlooking a bend in the Hudson and near a thick wood, as the spot for Gates’ troops to build defensive barriers, parapets and trenches.

When Burgoyne’s troops arrived in September, they couldn’t penetrate Kosciuszko’s defenses. So they tried an end run through the woods, where Virginia riflemen picked them off and soldiers commanded by Benedict Arnold aggressively charged, killing and wounding 600 redcoats. Two weeks later, Burgoyne tried to attack even farther west, but the Americans surrounded and beat the British. Historians often describe Burgoyne’s surrender as the turning point of the war, since it convinced France’s King Louis XVI to negotiate to enter the war on the American side. Gates and Arnold got most of the credit, which Gates deflected to Kosciuszko. “The great tacticians of the campaign were hills and forests,” Gates wrote to Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, “which a young Polish Engineer was skilful enough to select for my encampment.”

Kosciuszko spent the next three years improving the defense of the Hudson River, taking part in the design of Fort Clinton at West Point. Though he bickered about the fort’s design with Louis de la Radière, a French engineer also serving the Continental Army, the Americans valued his skills. George Washington often praised Kosciuszko in his correspondence and unsuccessfully asked Congress to promote him—despite spelling his name 11 different ways in his letters, including Kosiusko, Koshiosko, and Cosieski. During Benedict Arnold’s failed betrayal, he attempted to sell details about West Point’s defenses, designed by Kosciuszko, Radière, and others, to the British.

In 1780, Kosciuszko traveled south to serve as chief engineer of the Americans’ southern army in the Carolinas. There, he twice rescued American forces from British advances by directing the crossing of two rivers. His attempt to undermine the defenses of British fort in South Carolina with trench-digging failed, and in the ensuing battle, he was bayoneted in the buttocks. In 1782, the war’s waning days, Kosciuszko finally served as a field commander, spying, stealing cattle and skirmishing during the siege of Charleston. After the war, Washington honored Kosciuszko with gifts of two pistols and a sword.

After the war, Kosciuszko sailed back to Poland, hoping that the American Revolution could serve as a model for his own country to resist foreign domination and achieve democratic reforms. There, King Stanislaw II August Poniatowski was trying to rebuild the nation’s strength despite the menacing influence of Russian czarina Catherine the Great, his former lover and patron. Back home, Kosciuszko resumed his friendship with his love, Louise (now married to a prince), and joined the Polish army.

After Poland’s partition by Russia and Prussia in 1793, which overturned a more democratic 1791 constitution and chopped 115,000 square miles off Poland, Kosciuszko led an uprising against both foreign powers. Assuming the title of commander in chief of Poland, he led the rebels in a valiant seven months of battles in 1794. Catherine the Great put a price on his head and her Cossack troops defeated the rebellion that October, stabbing its leader with pikes during the battle. Kosciuszko spent two years in captivity in Russia, until Catherine’s death in 1796. A month later, her son, Paul, who disagreed with Catherine’s belligerent foreign policy, freed him. He returned to the United States in August 1797.

Kosciuszko lived in a boarding house in the capital, Philadelphia, collecting back pay for the war from Congress, and seeing old friends. By then, Americans had splintered into their first partisan conflict, between the Federalists, who admired the British system of government and feared the French Revolution, and the Republicans, who initially admired the French Revolution and feared a Federalist-led government would come to resemble the British monarchy. Kosciuszko took the side of the Francophile Republicans, resenting England’s support of Russia and seeing the Federalists as Anglophile elitists. So he avoided President John Adams, but developed a close friendship with Vice-President Thomas Jefferson.

“General Kosciuszko, I see him often,” Jefferson wrote Gates. “He is as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known, and of that liberty which is to go to all, and not to the few or rich alone.”

Kosciuszko took liberty so seriously that he was disappointed to see friends like Jefferson and Washington own slaves. During the American and Polish revolutions, Kosciuszko had employed black men as his aides-de-camp: Agrippa Hull in America, Jean Lapierre in Poland. When he returned to Europe in May 1798, hoping to organize another war to liberate Poland, Kosciuszko scribbled out a will. It left his American assets – $18,912 in back pay and 500 acres of land in Ohio, his reward for his war service -- for Jefferson to use to purchase the freedom and provide education for enslaved Africans. Jefferson, revising the draft into better legal English, also rewrote the will so that it would allow Jefferson to free some of his slaves with the bequest. The final draft, which Kosciuszko signed, called on “my friend Thomas Jefferson” to use Kosciuszko’s assets “in purchasing negroes from among his own as [well as] any others,” “giving them liberty in my name,” and “giving them an education in trades and otherwise.”

Though Kosciuszko returned to Paris, hoping to fight Russia and Prussia again, he never did. When Napoleon offered to help liberate Poland, Kosciuszko correctly sized him up, intuiting that his offer was disingenuous. (Later, many Poles in Napoleon’s service died in Haiti when they were ordered to put down Toussaint Louverture’s slave revolt.) Kosciuszko spent most of the remainder of his life in Paris, where he befriended Lafayette and celebrated American independence at Fourth of July parties with him.

One month before his 1817 death, Kosciuszko wrote Jefferson, reminding him of the terms of his will. But Jefferson, struggling with age, finances, inquiries about the estate from heirs in Europe, appeared in federal court in 1819 and asked a judge to appoint another executor of Kosciuszko’s affairs.

Kosciuszko’s will was never implemented. A year after Jefferson’s 1826 death, most of his slaves were sold at auction. A court-appointed executor squandered most of the estate, and in 1852, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the American will invalid, ruling that he had revoked it in an 1816 will. (Kosciuszko’s 1817 letter to Jefferson proves that was not his intent.)

Today, Kosciuszko is remembered with statues in Washington, Boston, Detroit and other cities, many of them the products of Polish-Americans’ efforts to assert their patriotism during the 1920s backlash against immigration. A 92-year-old foundation in his name awards $1 million annually in college scholarships and grants to Poles and Polish-Americans. There’s even a mustard named for him. Yet as Lafayette’s status as a foreign ally of the American Revolution continues to grow, Kosciuszko remains relatively obscure. Perhaps it’s because he mastered the subtle art of military fortifications war heroes are made by bold offensives, not fort-making.

“I would say his influence is even more significant than Lafayette,” says Alex Storozynski, author of The Peasant Prince, the definitive modern biography of Kosciuszko. Without Kosciuszko’s contributions to the Battle of Saratoga, Storozynski argues, the Americans might have lost, and France might never have entered the war on the American side.

Larrie Ferriero, whose new book Brothers at Arms examines France and Spain’s role in the Revolution, says that though Kosciuszko’s role in America’s founding is less decisive than Lafayette’s, the abolitionist sentiment behind his will makes him more important as an early voice of conscience.

“He was fighting next to people who believed they were fighting for independence, but not doing it for all,” Ferriero says. “Even before Americans themselves fully came to that understanding, he saw it.”


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Clark, William Bell, and William James Morgan, eds. Naval Documents of the American Revolution. 10 vols. Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 1964–1996.

Goslinga, Cornelis Ch. The Dutch in the Caribbean and in the Guianas 1680–1791. Assen, Netherlands, and Dover, N.H.: Van Gorcum, 1985.

Klooster, Wim. Illicit Riches: Dutch Trade in the Caribbean, 1648–1795. Leiden: KITLV Press, 1998.

Nordholt, Jan Willem Schulte. The Dutch Republic and American Independence. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.

Scott, H. M. "Sir Joseph Yorke, Dutch Politics, and the Origins of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War." Historical Journal 31, no. 3 (September 1988): 571-589.


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The French Alliance

The ink was barely dry on the Treaty of Paris in 1763 before the French foreign ministry began planning and preparing for the “next” war with Great Britain. As a nation France was determined to avenge its humiliating defeat during the Seven Years War, which had forced it to give up Canada and had upset the balance of power in Europe. As early as 1767 France began following the growing conflict between Great Britain and its North American colonies with great interest, even sending agents to America to discover how serious the colonists were in their resistance to British attempts to tax them without their consent.

This 18th-century French engraving depicts the October 19, 1781, British surrender at Yorktown to allied American and French forces.Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.

In 1774 supporters of the Patriot cause approached French officials asking for assistance, but the French Foreign Minister, the Comte de Vergennes, decided it was too soon to get involved. He feared that the crisis might be resolved or that open intervention would lead to a war that France was not yet ready for, and instead he adopted a policy of “watchful waiting.” In 1775, however, he did send a secret agent to Philadelphia to meet with the Continental Congress. There were two necessary conditions for France to openly help the American rebels: first they had to declare their independence, and second they had to show that they were capable of defending themselves against the British army. Until these conditions were met, Vergennes decided to officially remain neutral, but early in 1776 he began secretly sending military supplies and financial aid to the Americans.

By the fall of 1776 a fictitious trading firm had already procured and shipped to the rebels nearly 300,000 pounds of gunpowder, 30,000 muskets, 3,000 tents, more than 200 pieces of artillery, and clothing for 30,000 soldiers. In December 1776 three American agents in Paris, led by Benjamin Franklin, proposed a formal alliance between the United States and France. The French were still hesitant about openly entering the conflict, partly because preparations for war, especially efforts to strengthen the French fleet, were not yet complete.

A number of idealistic French aristocrats, such as the Marquis de Lafayette, were far too impatient to wait for their country to enter the war. In 1777 Lafayette and many others from France came to America to volunteer as soldiers in George Washington’s Continental Army. By the end of the year, news reached Paris of the stunning American victory in October at Saratoga, New York, over British General Burgoyne. With both of his conditions now met, Vergennes began negotiating a treaty of alliance with the American commissioners. On February 6, 1778, France and the United States signed a “Treaty of Alliance” as well as another treaty of “Amity and Commerce.” The French declaration of war against Great Britain changed everything. The British were now involved in a worldwide war, not just an attempt to put down a rebellion. The King’s ministers now had to adopt a more defensive military strategy, and they were also forced to spread their military resources and navy over a much wider theater of operations.

The grand strategy envisioned by the Continental Congress and its generals was to use French armed forces, especially the French navy, to neutralize the existing British superiority on land and at sea and thereby decisively defeat King George’s forces in America. The first direct French military support to reach America, in July 1778, was an expeditionary force of 4,000 soldiers and 16 ships under the command of the Comte d’Estaing. The first attempt to mount a joint American-French military operation, however, ended in failure. The French ships were not able to join in an attack on British-occupied New York City because they could not get across a sandbar that blocked the entrance into the harbor. The next plan called for an assault on British troops at Newport, Rhode Island, with the French providing naval support to an American land force. Unfortunately a combination of poor communication and a lack of coordination once again led to failure. The Americans blamed the French for the botched attack, and when d’Estaing and his fleet returned to Boston for repairs, anti-French feeling was so great that a French officer was killed during a riot. These failures were due in part to cultural differences between the new allies. D’Estaing and his aristocratic officers were scornful of the citizen soldiers they encountered in America and treated them as inferiors.

The British were now shifting the main theater of their operations to the southern states, and by December 1778 they had captured Savannah, Georgia. In September 1779 Admiral d’Estaing returned to North America from the West Indies and made a second attempt at a joint military operation with the Americans, this time to retake Savannah from the British. Once again the campaign was unsuccessful. The allied army assaulted the strong British fortifications but was repulsed with heavy casualties. The Americans wanted to continue the siege, but d’Estaing refused as he was under orders to return to France. As a result of these failures many Americans had become disillusioned about the French alliance, and some even began to suspect French intentions. Growing ill will toward the French was only counterbalanced by the money and supplies that continued to arrive from France.

A pair of pistols owned by the Marquis de Lafayette, who served with the American Continental Army from 1777 to
1781, is on exhibit in the The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown’s Converging on Yorktown Gallery. Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Leslie O. Lynch, Jr.

The year 1780 was perhaps the lowest point in the American struggle to win independence. The British were securely dug in at New York, had taken Charleston, South Carolina, in May after a brief siege, and were on the verge of overrunning the Carolinas. The only encouraging development was the arrival of another French expeditionary force under the command of the Comte de Rochambeau in July. For many months, however, Rochambeau’s small fleet and 5,500 well-equipped soldiers were isolated in Rhode Island, blockaded by the British navy. Unlike Admiral d’Estaing, General Rochambeau took great pains to cultivate good relations with his American allies and treated George Washington as his equal. After conferring with General Washington in the spring of 1781, Rochambeau and his four regiments marched overland to join up with the Continental Army near White Plains, New York. His small fleet, which had on board state-of-the-art siege artillery, remained in Rhode Island.

Washington’s initial plan was to use the combined American and French forces to force the British out of New York City and its environs. The situation changed dramatically however, on August 14, 1781, when Rochambeau learned that Admiral de Grasse and a large French fleet, as well as some additional French infantry, would soon arrive in the vicinity of the Chesapeake Bay. De Grasse was prepared to support a military campaign in the area but was not willing to go as far north as New York, and he warned that he had to return to the West Indies by mid-October. This news was to set the stage for the final and decisive military campaign of the American Revolution.

Early in 1781 the war had finally come to Virginia. First an invading force under the command of the traitor Benedict Arnold had overrun much of the eastern part of the state, destroying valuable supplies and cargos of tobacco. Much to Governor Thomas Jefferson’s dismay, the state’s militia units, the only men available for defense, were not able to stand up to the professional British soldiers. The state’s plight deepened in the summer when British General Cornwallis abandoned his unsuccessful attempt to subdue the Carolinas and instead decided to join the British forces already in Virginia. With an army now numbering nearly 7,000 men, General Cornwallis began a wide-ranging campaign of economic and military destruction aimed at ending Virginia’s important contributions to the war effort. Although Washington had sent the Marquis de Lafayette to Virginia with a few Continental troops, he was not able to prevent the British from rampaging through the state, burning the capital of Richmond, and nearly capturing the legislative assembly in Charlottesville. By early August Cornwallis began setting up a fortified base at Yorktown, with the expectation of reinforcements.

Upon learning of the imminent arrival of de Grasse and his fleet, Rochambeau persuaded Washington to abandon his plan to attack New York. Instead Rochambeau and Washington would combine their forces and rapidly march to Virginia in an attempt to trap Cornwallis and his army. This time the “grand strategy” worked. On August 29, 1781, ten days after the allied army left New York, Admiral de Grasse arrived in the Chesapeake Bay. Aware of this news, the British dispatched a fleet from New York that arrived off the Virginia capes on the fifth of September. The French and British fleets engaged in battle for several days, and although the outcome was indecisive, Admiral Graves, the British commander, decided to return to New York for repairs.

Cornwallis was now trapped. Without naval support he could neither escape nor be resupplied or reinforced. Outnumbered two to one, by October 9th he was surrounded by the allied army and under intense bombardment from the heavy siege cannon. After ten days of intense, destructive artillery fire and running short of food, he was forced to surrender his army on October 19, 1781. Although it was another two years before Great Britain formally recognized American independence and negotiated peace with the United States, public attitude in England turned against the war, and the Yorktown campaign was the last major military battle of the Revolution.

Without the direct and indirect assistance of France, it is doubtful that Americans could have won the war for independence. From 1776 to 1783 France supplied the United States with millions of livres in cash and credit. France also committed 63 warships, 22,000 sailors and 12,000 soldiers to the war, and these forces suffered relatively heavy casualties as a result. The French national debt incurred during the war contributed to the fiscal crisis France experienced in the late 1780s, and that was one factor that brought on the French Revolution. In the end the French people paid a high price for helping America gain its independence.

Edward Ayres
Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation Historian


French Alliance, French Assistance, and European Diplomacy during the American Revolution, 1778–1782

During the American Revolution, the American colonies faced the significant challenge of conducting international diplomacy and seeking the international support it needed to fight against the British. The single most important diplomatic success of the colonists during the War for Independence was the critical link they forged with France. Representatives of the French and American governments signed the Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce on February 6, 1778.

American colonists hoped for possible French aid in their struggle against British forces. The Continental Congress established the Secret Committee of Correspondence to publicize the American cause in Europe. Committee member Benjamin Franklin wrote to contacts in France with encouraging accounts of colonial resistance. The French had suffered a defeat by the British during the Seven Years’ War and had lost North American territory under the 1763 Treaty of Paris. As the French and the British continued to vie for power in the 1770s, French officials saw an opportunity in the rebellion of Britain’s North American colonies to take advantage of British troubles. Through secret agents, the French Government began to provide clandestine assistance to the United States, much of which they channeled through American trader Silas Deane.

As the members of the Continental Congress considered declaring independence, they also discussed the possibility and necessity of foreign alliances, and assigned a committee to draft a Model Treaty to serve as guide for this work. After Congress formally declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, it dispatched a group of several commissioners led by Benjamin Franklin to negotiate an alliance with France. When news of the Declaration of Independence and the subsequent British evacuation of Boston reached France, French Foreign Minister Comte de Vergennes decided in favor of an alliance. However, once news of General George Washington ’s defeats in New York reached Europe in August of 1776, Vergennes wavered, questioning the wisdom of committing to a full alliance.

Benjamin Franklin’s popularity in France bolstered French support for the American cause. The French public viewed Franklin as a representative of republican simplicity and honesty, an image Franklin cultivated. A rage for all things Franklin and American swept France, assisting American diplomats and Vergennes in pushing for an alliance. In the meantime, Vergennes agreed to provide the United States with a secret loan.

Despite the loan and discussions of a full alliance, French assistance to the new United States was limited at the outset. Throughout 1777, Vergennes delayed as he conducted negotiations with the Spanish Government, which was wary of U.S. independence and also wanted assurances that Spain would regain territories if it went to war against the British.

Vergennes finally decided in favor of an alliance when news of the British surrender at the Battle of Saratoga reached him in December 1777. Vergennes, having heard rumors of secret British peace offers to Franklin, decided not to wait for Spanish support and offered the United States an official French alliance. On February 6, 1778, Benjamin Franklin and the other two commissioners, Arthur Lee and Silas Deane , signed a Treaty of Alliance and a Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France. The Treaty of Alliance contained the provisions the U.S. commissioners had originally requested, but also included a clause forbidding either country to make a separate peace with Britain, as well as a secret clause allowing for Spain, or other European powers, to enter into the alliance. Spain officially entered the war on June 21, 1779. The Treaty of Amity and Commerce promoted trade between the United States and France and recognized the United States as an independent nation.

Between 1778 and 1782 the French provided supplies, arms and ammunition, uniforms, and, most importantly, troops and naval support to the beleaguered Continental Army. The French navy transported reinforcements, fought off a British fleet, and protected Washington’s forces in Virginia. French assistance was crucial in securing the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781.

With the consent of Vergennes, U.S. commissioners entered negotiations with Britain to end the war, and reached a preliminary agreement in 1782. Franklin informed Vergennes of the agreement and also asked for an additional loan. Vergennes did lodge a complaint on this instance, but also granted the requested loan despite French financial troubles. Vergennes and Franklin successfully presented a united front despite British attempts to drive a wedge between the allies during their separate peace negotiations. The United States, Spain, and France formally ended the war with Britain with the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

Although European powers considered their treaty obligations abrogated by the French Revolution, the United States considered it to be in effect despite President Washington’s policy of neutrality in the war between Britain and France. The Citizen Genêt Affair erupted partially because of clauses contained in the alliance treaty that violated the neutrality policy. The Treaty of Paris also remained technically in effect during the undeclared Quasi-War with France, and was formally ended by the Convention of 1800 which also terminated the Quasi-War.


The American Revolution

France supported the rebellious colonies (eventually the United States) during the American Revolution because it perceived the revolt as the embodiment of Enlightenment ideals and as an opportunity to curb British ambitions.

Learning Objectives

Connect the American Revolution and French politics

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The origins of the French involvement in the American Revolution go back to the British victory in the French and Indian War. France’s loss in that war weakened its international position at the time when Britain was becoming the most powerful European empire. The outbreak of the American Revolution was thus seen in France as an opportunity to curb British ambitions.
  • From the spring of 1776, France (together with Spain) was informally involved in the American Revolutionary War by providing supplies, ammunition, and guns. The 1777 capture of a British army at Saratoga encouraged the French to formally enter the war in support of Congress.
  • Benjamin Franklin negotiated a permanent military alliance in early 1778 and thus France became the first country to officially recognize the Declaration of Independence. In 1778, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance were signed between the United States and France.
  • France supported the United States in North America but as the enemy of Britain, it was also involved in the Caribbean and Indian theaters of the American Revolution.
  • France’s material gains in the aftermath of the American Revolution were minimal, but its financial losses huge. The treaty with France was mostly about exchanges of captured territory (France’s only net gains were the islands of Tobago and Senegal in Africa). Historians link the disastrous post-war financial state of the French state to the subsequent French Revolution.
  • The American Revolution also serves as an example of the transatlantic flow of ideas. At its ideological roots were the ideals of the Enlightenment, many of which emerged in France and were developed by French philosophers. Conversely, the American Revolution became the first in a series of upheavals in the Atlantic that embodied the ideals of the Enlightenment and thus inspired others to follow the revolutionary spirit, including the French during their 1789 Revolution.

Key Terms

  • Second Anglo-Mysore War: A 1780-1784 conflict between the Kingdom of Mysore and the British East India Company. At the time, Mysore was a key French ally in India, and the Franco-British war sparked Anglo-Mysorean hostilities in India. The great majority of soldiers on the company side were raised, trained, paid, and commanded by the company, not the British government.
  • Treaty of Paris of 1763: A 1763 treaty signed by the kingdoms of Great Britain, France and Spain with Portugal in agreement, after Great Britain’s victory over France and Spain during the Seven Years’ War. The signing of the treaty formally ended the Seven Years’ War and marked the beginning of an era of British dominance outside Europe. Great Britain and France each returned much of the territory that they had captured during the war, but Great Britain gained much of France’s possession in North America. Additionally, Great Britain agreed to protect Roman Catholicism in the New World. The treaty did not involve Prussia and Austria as they signed a separate agreement, the Treaty of Hubertusburg.
  • French and Indian War: A 1754-1763 conflict that comprised the North American theater of the worldwide Seven Years’ War of 1756-1763. The war pitted the colonies of British America against those of New France, with both sides supported by military units from their parent countries of Great Britain and France as well as by American Indian allies.
  • Enlightenment: An intellectual movement which dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century. It included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and came to advance ideals such as liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.
  • New France: The area colonized by France in North America during a period beginning with the exploration of the Saint Lawrence River by Jacques Cartier in 1534 and ending with the cession to Spain and Great Britain in 1763. At its peak in 1712, the territory extended from Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains and from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, including all the Great Lakes of North America.

France and the American Revolution: Background

The origins of the French involvement in the American Revolution go back to the British victory in the French and Indian War (1754–1763 the American theater in the Seven Years’ War). The war pitted the colonies of British America against those of New France, with both sides supported by military units from their parent countries as well as by American Indians. As a result of the war, France ceded most of the territories of New France, except the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon, to Great Britain and Spain at the Treaty of Paris of 1763. Britain received Canada, Acadia, and the parts of French Louisiana which lay east of the Mississippi River – except for New Orleans, which was granted to Spain, along with the territory to the west – the larger portion of Louisiana. Consequently, France lost its position as a major player in North American affairs.

France’s loss in the war weakened its international position at the time when Britain began turning into the most powerful European empire. The outbreak of the American Revolution was thus seen in France as an opportunity to curb British ambitions. Furthermore, both the French general population and the elites supported the revolutionary spirit that many perceived as the incarnation of the Enlightenment ideals against the “English tyranny.” In political terms, the Revolution was seen in France as an opportunity to strip Britain of its North American possessions in retaliation for France’s loss a decade before.

French Involvement

From the spring of 1776, France and Spain were informally involved in the American Revolutionary War, with French admiral Latouche Tréville leading the process of providing supplies, ammunition, and guns from France. In 1777, the British sent an invasion force from Canada to seal off New England as part of a grand strategy to end the war. The British army in New York City went to Philadelphia, capturing it from Washington. The invasion army under John Burgoyne waited in vain for reinforcements from New York and became trapped in northern New York state. It surrendered after the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777.

Surrender of General Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga, by John Trumbull, 1822.

A British army was captured at the Battle of Saratoga in late 1777 and in its aftermath, the French openly entered the war as allies of the United States. Estimates place the percentage of French-supplied arms to the Americans in the Saratoga campaign at up to 90%.

The capture of a British army at Saratoga encouraged the French to formally enter the war in support of Congress. Benjamin Franklin negotiated a permanent military alliance in early 1778, making France the first country to officially recognize the Declaration of Independence. In 1778, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance were signed between the United States and France. William Pitt, former British prime minister and Britain’s political leader during the Seven Years’ War, spoke out in parliament urging Britain to make peace in America and unite with America against France, while other British politicians who previously sympathized with colonial grievances now turned against the Americans for allying with Britain’s international rival and enemy. Later, Spain (in 1779) and the Dutch (1780) became allies of the French, leaving the British Empire to fight a global war without major international support.

The American theater became only one front in Britain’s war. The British were forced to withdraw troops from continental America to reinforce the valuable sugar-producing Caribbean colonies, which were considered more important. British commander Sir Henry Clinton evacuated Philadelphia to reinforce New York City because of the alliance with France and the deteriorating military situation. General Washington attempted to intercept the retreating column, resulting in the Battle of Monmouth Court House, the last major battle fought in the north. After an inconclusive engagement, the British successfully retreated to New York City. The northern war subsequently became a stalemate, as the focus of attention shifted to the smaller southern theater.

The northern, southern, and naval theaters of the war converged in 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia. The British army under Cornwallis marched to Yorktown, where they expected to be rescued by a British fleet. The fleet was there but so was a larger French fleet. The British returned to New York for reinforcements after the Battle of the Chesapeake, leaving Cornwallis trapped. In October 1781, the British surrendered their second invading army of the war under a siege by the combined French and Continental armies under Washington.

Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, by John Trumbull, 1797.

In 1781, British forces moved through Virginia and settled at Yorktown, but their escape was blocked by a French naval victory in September. A combined Franco-American army launched a siege at Yorktown and captured more than 8,000 British troops in October. The defeat at Yorktown finally turned the British Parliament against the war and in early 1782 they voted to end offensive operations in North America.

France was also involved in the Caribbean and Indian theaters of the American Revolutionary War. Although France lost St. Lucia early in the war, its navy dominated the Caribbean, capturing Dominica, Grenada, Saint Vincent, Montserrat, Tobago, St. Kitts, and Turks and Caicos between 1778 and 1782. Dutch possessions in the Caribbean and South America were captured by Britain but later recaptured by France and restored to the Dutch Republic. When word reached India in 1778 that France had entered the war, the British East India Company moved quickly to capture French trading outposts there. The capture of the French-controlled port of Mahé on India’s west coast motivated Mysore’s ruler, Hyder Ali, to start the Second Anglo-Mysore War in 1780. The French support was weak, however, and the status quo ante bellum (“the state existing before the war”) 1784 Treaty of Mangalore ended the war. France’s trading posts in India were returned after the war.

Aftermath of the American Revolution for France

France’s material gains in the aftermath of the American Revolution were minimal but its financial losses huge. The treaty with France was mostly about exchanges of captured territory (France’s only net gains were the islands of Tobago and Senegal in Africa), but it also reinforced earlier treaties, guaranteeing fishing rights off Newfoundland. France, already in financial trouble, was economically exhausted by borrowing to pay for the war and using up all its credit. Its participation in the war created the financial disasters that marked the 1780s. Historians link those disasters to the coming of the French Revolution. Ironically, while the peace in 1783 left France on the verge of an economic crisis, the British economy boomed thanks to the return of American business.

The American Revolution also serves as an example of the transatlantic flow of ideas. At its ideological roots were the ideals of the Enlightenment, many of which emerged in France and were developed by French philosophers. Conversely, the American Revolution became the first in a series of upheavals in the Atlantic that embodied the ideals of the Enlightenment and thus inspired others to follow the revolutionary spirit, including the French during their 1789 Revolution. The American Revolution was a powerful example of overthrowing an old regime for many Europeans who were active during the era of the French Revolution, and the American Declaration of Independence influenced the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789.


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