France Intervenes in the American Revolution
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
Consequences of Saratoga
The surrender at Saratoga had results much more far-reaching than the mere immediate change in the military situation on the American Continent. There was nothing in itself irretrievable about the disaster. A Chatham, bent on a vigorous prosecution of the war, would have found troops and officers numerous enough and capable enough to vanquish the Americans in the field in the simple duel. But after Saratoga the war ceased to be a duel. It became a struggle between Great Britain and a group of combatants who joined together for her destruction.
She had sown the wind in the long years of incompetent and wrong-headed administration; now she was to reap the whirlwind. The Peace of Paris had left her with no friend in Europe and with one implacable foe. That foe, France, had at least endeavoured to lay to heart one great lesson of the Seven Years' War, and had been steadily and persistently building up a fleet, while Britain had been neglecting both her naval and her military organisation. France had been drawing closer her union with Spain, and had been mollifying rather than exacerbating old animosities on the Continent. She desired nothing better than an opportunity of striking, a blow at the rival who had defeated her.
But so far France had had no shadow of excuse for intervention. Moreover, at the outset her shrewd minister Turgot had perceived that in any event Great Britain was likely to suffer from the war so severely that it would not be worth while for France to intervene even if she could afford to do so, which Turgot very well knew she could not. French finances had been reduced to chaos; Turgot was striving to bring them into something like order, and he knew that economy was imperative. But Turgots tenure of power was. brief; his financial methods subjected the privileged classes to taxation, which they resented, and he was driven into retirement.
The direction of foreign affairs was in the hands of Vergennes. Vergennes was inclined to an aggressive policy, although it was restricted to a secret encouragement of the American rebellion. International amenities forbade the immediate recognition of the American States as an independent nation; but their agents, despatched to Paris after the Declaration of Independence, were welcomed by Parisian society, feted, and patronised in a fashion which left no room for doubt that participation in the war would be exceedingly popular in France.
The French court and French society were as yet unconscious that they were playing on the crater of a volcano. The "rights of man" were in fashion, because from the point of view of Society they were entirely visionary and impossible in France itself. A theoretical enthusiasm for popular liberties could be comfortably enjoyed where privilege felt itself to be perfectly secure. The aristocrats had no suspicion that while they were encouraging, revolution in America they were fomenting revolution at home.
Fraace indeed could expect no direct benefit to herself from the American War; it was enough that she thirsted for humiliation and disaster to fall upon the British.
But Saratoga gave an opening, an excuse for recognising the independence of the colonies, although it was tolerably obvious that such a recognition would involve war. It was not so easy for France to draw Spain in her wake; for Spain was a great colonial power, and if the British colonies asserted their independence successfully; it was exceedingly probable that the Spanish colonies would follow the British example. Still Spain might hope that if she joined France and. the British colonies in open hostilities she might achieve not only the gratification of revenge, but tangible results, in the recovery of Gibraltar and Minorca.
And the prospects were infinitely better than they had been when she was last tempted to join with France in 1761. Then, Great Britain was advancing on the full tide of victory, and her fleets swept the seas unchallenged. Then, France was already exhausted by a war in which she had suffered a series of disastrous losses, besides being involved in the Prussian complication.
'A House Divided'
Now, Britain stood entirely alone, a house divided against itself, engaged in a struggle with her own colonies in which it was exceedingly doubtful whether she could achieve success, while her fleet had been allowed to lose its old predominance, whereas that of France had been carefully nursed and expanded.
It was immediately realised in England that the disaster of Saratoga would probably involve her in another struggle for life against the combined Bourbons. Before the end of the year France had given private assurances to the American commissioners in Paris that the independence of the colonies would be formally recognised, and that they would receive open support; although it was not till the following March that the formal treaty was notified in London.
But the facts could not be altogether concealed, and the threatened danger only roused British doggedness to the utmost. Whatever else happened, the Bourbons should be defied and fought to the last gasp. King George was even ready to drop the American contest altogether in order to concentrate on the French war. Bills were introduced and passed to offer the colonists everything that they had demanded before the outbreak of the war. North himself urged the king to allow him to resign and to call Chatham to the leadership.
Death of Pitt
But Chatham's day, was over; even if George could have brought himself to a reconciliation, the thing was no longer possible. He was carried down to the House for the last time in order to insist that Britain should never consent to a separation, and should never yield to the Bourbons, His speech was an answer to the Duke of Richmond's motion, on behalf of the Rockinghams, that all fleets and armies should be withdrawn from. America; it was a dying effort. His suffering and exhaustion were evident, his words often barely audible. Richmond replied. Chatham endeavoured once more to rise and speak, but his strength failed him, and he fell back in a fit, while a great awe fell upon the House. This was Chatham's last utterance, though a month passed before the spirit passed from the worn-out frame. So ended the life of the great patriot, whom all men, friends and foes alike, recognised as the grandest figure of his time.
The French Intervene at Last
The scene took place on the 7th April, three weeks after the announcement of the French treaty. North's proposals had come far too late, and Congress refused to treat upon any terms except recognition of the complete independence of America. It had already laid before the colonies its proposals for a scheme of confederation, which were adopted by eight of the states in the following July; the rest only came in by slow degrees. Though the vain .attempts at negotiation were not finally abandoned until October, the war had already entered upon its second phase when the French fleet sailed from Toulon in April.