May 5, 2024 at 5:05 a.m.

King Louis XVI

How the French helped America win its revolution

Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

King Louis XVI of France

Compiled by Jennifer Baker, DAR Vesuvius Furnace Chapter

On May 10, 1774, Louis XVI ascended to the throne of France. You may ask, what does this have to do with the American Revolution? 

France was one of America's strongest allies as the former English colonies became the new  nation. Louis XVI of France and French Foreign Minister Comte de Vergennes clandestinely agreed to supply the American rebels with munitions. In addition to financial support and munitions, France also sent troops. Among them, the Marquis de la Fayette who became one of George Washington’s staunchest allies. Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the Frenchman’s farewell tour to the United States which included at least five stops in North Carolina including his namesake – Fayetteville.

During the American Revolution, the rebellious colonies faced the significant challenge of conducting international diplomacy and seeking the international support 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.

Because of animosity between the France and England, the American colonists had reason to hope 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.

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.  Franklin became friends with Charles Gravier comte de Vergennes, a French statesman and diplomat who served as Foreign Minister from 1774 to 1787 during the reign of Louis XVI, and most notably during the American War for Independence. 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.

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.

King of France at the time of the French Revolution, Louis presided over a time of financial crisis that directly contributed to the outbreak of revolution in 1789. In that same year he convened the Estates-General. Discontent among the upper and middle class led to a revolt against the monarchy. His flight to Varennes in 1791 significantly undermined the credibility of the monarchy as an institution. In 1792, Louis was arrested after an insurrection in August. The monarchy was abolished the following year, a republic was proclaimed and he, along with his unpopular wife Austrian archduchess and French Queen Marie Antoinette, were executed by guillotine on January 21, 1793.

Ironically, the concepts spawned by the American revolution became the basis for the French Revolution that led to Louis's downfall--liberty, equality and fraternity.  


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