When French diplomats signed the Treaty of Alliance in 1778, they in essence vouched for an experiment called the United States of America. At a cost of blood and money, the French made it their business to see it through, from a set of colonies to a free and independent nation. The centuries to follow have been sometimes (superficially) contentious, but it’s hard to see the relationship as anything but one of familial love. But to find out how this close-knit family came together, one has to look back to France’s involvement in the American Revolution.
Even in the 1770s, Paris was a very old city (to illustrate that point, the Notre-Dame Cathedral was over 600 years old at the time). If you were a would-be revolutionary looking to start a nation from scratch, France was the model, and Paris wasn’t just a city—it was capital of a civilization built to last.
The founding fathers of the United States were heavily influenced by the French Enlightenment. When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that governments derive powers from the “consent of the governed,” he was drawing from Rousseau’s The Social Contract (originally known as On the Social Contract). Montesquieu deeply influenced James Madison, author of the Constitution, and is one reason we have a separation of powers among three branches of government. Voltaire’s writings on censorship, meanwhile, helped enshrine the freedom of the press.
MAKING IT HAPPEN
Plainly stated, if France hadn’t supported the United States during the American Revolution, there wouldn’t be a United States today. George Washington was a great general, but the Continental Army simply didn’t have the money, men, training, or seafaring vessels necessary to defeat the British. At the war’s outset, France secretly provided to the Americans trained officers, money, ammunition, and gunpowder. This contributed directly to the staggering victory of the Continentals over the British at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. Upon news of the British defeat, Louis XVI of France decided to go all-in. France signed the aforementioned Treaty of Alliance and the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, and started sending serious firepower to the colonies. War with Britain was on.
It should be mentioned that France’s goals weren’t entirely pure. Thirteen years earlier, they had been defeated by the British in the French and Indian War and, as a result, suffered a staggering loss of territory in North America. (Notably, the massive debt accumulated by Great Britain because of that war caused it to raise taxes on the colonies, which led to the American Revolution.) Striking a blow to the hated British was too good of an opportunity for the French to pass up, and by supporting the Americans, they could essentially wage a much more devastating war in North America than before.
France’s initial, primary contribution to the war took place on the seas with their naval forces. Not every effort was successful. The Battle of Rhode Island proved an inauspicious opening operation for the new allies, and the Second Battle of Savannah wasn’t much better. But the American Revolution was a global war, and elsewhere the French scored several key victories over the British, including naval battles in the West Indies and at the Battle of Grand Turk. The French joined the fight in full on American soil in 1780, at which point their highly disciplined army under the command of Lieutenant General Comte de Rochambeau set as their goal the total defeat of the British.
The two decisive battles of the American Revolution were the Battle of the Chesapeake and the Battle of Yorktown. The first was a strategic naval victory by the French navy over the British. Comte de Grasse and Comte de Bougainville, the French admirals who led fleets of warships, effectively prevented the British navy from reinforcing forces at Yorktown. Meanwhile, Yorktown saw armies under the command of Washington, Rochambeau, and French Major General Marquis de Lafayette decisively overpower British forces. The surrender of Lord Cornwallis effectively marked the end of the war, with the major powers opening peace talks.
French blood helped secure American independence. In a very real way, the road toward America becoming a world superpower passed through the streets of Paris.
All images courtesy of Getty Images