The War for America: 1775-1783

By Piers Mackesy | Go to book overview

CHAPTER I
LORD DARTMOUTH'S WAR

1. The Watching Enemy

The task which the unfortunate Ministers faced was enough to daunt the most stout-hearted. They had not sought it. But with the attack on Bunker Hill they had crossed the Rubicon. Nothing had been prepared, everything had to be done. In America there was not a single requisite for waging a war except gunpowder. The one gleam of light was that the rebels had shown their hand, and Parliament would now vote supplies which might have been questioned a few weeks earlier. Only the King was cheerful and energetic. 'We must persist and not be dismayed', he replied to a jeremiad from North.1

The most threatening aspect of the situation in the long run was not in America but in Europe. If the struggle should be prolonged, it was not likely to remain a private colonial quarrel. Paris, like London, had watched the news from Boston. In the Foreign Ministry of the young Louis XVI there were men who waited for the day that would right the balance and restore France to her greatness. At their head stood the Comte de Vergennes, a statesman without the brilliance of Choiseul, but endowed with a patience which groped its way through the tangled politics of the nations towards it goal. One of his subordinates later described the aims which inspired them. For her honour France had to seize this opportunity to rise from her degradation. 'If she neglected it, if fear overcame duty, she would add debasement to humiliation, and become an object of contempt to her own century and to all future peoples.'2

In seeking independence for England"s colonies, Vergennes challenged tradition. The Americans would expect the opening of French colonial trade to their shipping and the final renunciation of Canada. Yet most French officials believed the price should be paid. Vergennes' way was clear; and in surveying his country's alliances he followed the path mapped by Choiseul. In Europe, the Austrian alliance should be maintained, but only as a tranquillising agency: Austrian aggressions were not to be supported. The corner-stone of French foreign policy must be the Family Compact with Spain. On the Continent the Compact would help to restrain Austria: on the seas France and Spain together could outnumber the British navy.3

From the beginning of the war, Vergennes believed that the reconquest of

____________________
1
1682-3.
2
Doniol, I, 2 ff.
3
Doniol, I, Chap. 2 and p. 241.

-27-

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