Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite: The American Revolution & the European Response

By Charles W. Toth | Go to book overview

The historiography of the American Revolution declares loudly that the war for independence has many faces. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence proved to be not only the opening gun for civil war within the British empire, but the most momentous historical event of the entire 18th century in that it provided the occasion for the European powers to set the stage for a redress of grievances. Thus the war for independence quickly became entangled in the web of European politics by setting into motion a train of events which brought most of the so-called Atlantic community into war. But a successful revolution was virtually impossible without the aid of Europe; thus it could not be extricated from the "gathering storm" of the 1770's, from war, or from the diplomatic upheavals upon which American fortunes rose or fell. The treaty of alliance with France in 1778 triggered a vast global conflict involving the imperial aspirations of France, England, and ultimately Spain.

American leadership was not unaware of the significance to European responses to insurrection. The Continental Congress, in sending instructions to Franklin in Paris, suggested in a somewhat Machiavellian fashion that "a war in Europe would greatly and immediately change the scene." And shortly after his arrival in France Franklin slyly conveyed the impression of a possible re-conciliation with England. Vergennes feared that such a result would prevent the great opportunity for France to break up the British empire and thus avenge the losses resulting from the Seven Years' War ( 1756-1763). The English minister in Paris, Lord Stormont, quite correctly predicted that unless the rebellion in America be quickly squelched, the peace of Europe could not last a year. The surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga in the Fall of 1777 virtually guaranteed the Franco-American Treaty of 1778 and the widening and formalizing of an already undeclared war. The matériel de guerre which had begun to flow to America, together with the extensive privateering, already posed a problem of the first magnitude for Europe.

Although France recognized the independence of the colonies, Vergennes was more interested in the discomfiture of the English. Perhaps France could eventually capture not only the trade of the

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