In March of 2003, after France opposed a UN invasion of Iraq, two US Republicans removed all references to French fries from menus affiliated with the US House of Representatives. In the House cafeteria, potatoes became “freedom fries”. In a time of such Francophobia, some Americans might be surprised by the history of positive French-American relations. In fact, it’s likely that the American colonies would not have defeated the British without French support.
In the 1770s, French enthusiasm for the American Revolution was high. Intellectually, French Enlightenment intellectuals were agitating against their own feudal land systems and class privilege. Emotionally, French leaders had been eager to defeat arch-rival Britain since their Seven Years War. King Louis XVI had been privately supporting the colonists for some time. But now, formal support appeared more advantageous. France saw this as a strategic opportunity to secure North American landholdings and officially befriend a rising power. Ben Franklin also played a significant role in winning tangible French support; traveling with his wit and charm, Franklin visited Paris in 1776 to rally support for the colonists’ cause. France first assisted the rogue colonies in May of 1776 by sending 14 ships loaded with gunpowder and other war supplies.
In February of 1778, the colonists and the French signed a Treaty of Amity and Commerce. This was significant because France not only offered trade concessions, but also legally recognized the colonies as the United States. Most importantly, Ben Franklin also secured a Treaty of Alliance with King Louis XVI. This stipulated that if France entered the war against Britain: 1) neither France nor the US would surrender; 2) neither would agree to peace with Britain without the other’s consent; and 3) each guaranteed the other’s landholdings in America. Within a few months, British ships fired upon the French, and the two countries were at war. France sent about 12,000 soldiers and 30,000 sailors to support the colonists.
Many Frenchmen were truly committed to the cause of liberty. A former French Navy captain, Marquis de Lafayette, had such zeal that the French suggested he enlist in the US forces! He volunteered to become a major general for no pay. Lafayette became an effective military leader and a lifelong friend of General George Washington. He was eventually given honorary US citizenship.
When France officially entered the war, Spanish interest was piqued. Motivated by the possibility of a land grab, Spain entered the war as a French ally against Britain. Holland followed suit. This combination of European powers was a much greater threat to Britain than the colonies could produce alone, and the crucial 1781 victory at Yorktown could not have been won without the French alliance.
Unfortunately for France, following the Battle at Yorktown, Ben Franklin engaged in secret negotiations with Britain. This was particularly insulting considering the French- American treaties and France’s considerable wartime expenditures. Their hopes of becoming the main US trade partner were dashed when most American trade was contracted within the British Empire. Also, expectations of regaining French North American territories were mostly unmet.
Still, defeating the British brought France a definite taste of revenge. It also restored a sense of French confidence and esteem alongside other European powers. Furthermore, in spirit France was now ready for a revolution of its own.