US History
US History E-Text > The Revolution: From Saratoga to Monmouth > Foreign Aid

The crisis of the Revolution had passed before the colonists received any substantial military aid from abroad, and they would probably have won their independence had they been left wholly to themselves. Nevertheless the help that at length came was received most gratefully. France was the first to stretch forth a helping hand. But the motive of the French was not the noblest of motives. It was not a feeling of friendliness that prompted their action; they scarcely knew the Americans except as a foe whom they had met on the field of battle. Nor was it a desire to strike a blow in the cause of Liberty struggling to be born; France was at that moment the most king-ridden country in Europe. What prompted the French government to interfere in behalf of the patriot cause in America was chiefly a desire to cripple and wound her old enemy, who had robbed her of her own fair dominion in the New World.

This was the chief motive of the French; but there was another. In addition to a certain romantic interest in the American struggle, felt in the higher circles of French society, there was a spirit of unrest throughout the nation that only waited an opportunity to vent itself. Taught by such men as Voltaire and Rousseau, Montesquieu and Turgot, the French people had come to that state of discontent which first found expression in a desire to aid the struggling Americans, and later in the violent Revolution that swept over their own land.

Scarcely had the breach between England and her colonies begun when the French sought to widen it. Early in the contest Arthur Lee, then living in London as the agent of Virginia, secured from the French government, under the name of a fictitious business firm, military stores to the amount of $200,000. Congress then sent Silas Deane to join Lee, and it was not long until French vessels had landed in America two hundred heavy guns, four thousand tents, a large supply of small arms, and clothing for thirty thousand men. This was done secretly, as France was not yet ready to break with England.

Soon after the Declaration of Independence had been adopted Congress sent Franklin to join Lee and Deane in Paris. Before the opening of the war Benjamin Franklin alone, of all the American people, enjoyed a fame bounded only by civilization. He had won a great name as a philosopher and a writer of epigrams, and now he was about to prove himself one of the leading diplomats of his generation. Every class of French society, from the nobility to the peasant, now paid homage to the genius who could "snatch the lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants."1 It was certainly a fortunate hour for America when Franklin was chosen for this important mission.

For more than a year he labored with unwearied zeal at the French court to secure the recognition of the United States. At first the French were unwilling to go to such lengths, but Vergennes, the foreign minister, made a secret arrangement to convey to America two million francs a year in quarterly payments, to be repaid eventually in merchandise. Three ships laden with army stores were also sent; two of them arrived in safety, but the third was captured by the British.

A year passed, and during this time Franklin and his companions were steadily molding French opinion in favor of America. At length, late in the autumn of 1777, the news of the surrender of Burgoyne reached Paris, and the excitement was scarcely less there than in America. The popular enthusiasm reached the court, and ere the close of December the king sent word to Franklin that he was ready to acknowledge the independence of the United States. His haste was doubtless caused by a fear that the English would now offer terms acceptable to the Americans. Negotiations were immediately begun, and on February 6, 1778, a secret treaty was concluded between the two countries -- a compact of friendship to be made public, and a treaty of alliance to be made public only when England declared war against France. By this treaty the United States made a solemn agreement not to make terms with England until that country had acknowledged its independence.

And France won the American heart. For long years before the Revolution, the filial love of the colonists for Great Britain was unbroken, while there was a feeling of dislike toward France, the rival claimant of the soil of North America, and toward Frenchmen, whom they had often met on the field of battle. But in the fifteen years following the Stamp Act, this feeling was reversed, and the effects of that change have not been eradicated to this day.2 It is true that America has come to love old England again, as it should; but France has never been forgotten for her timely aid in this trying hour. And this sympathetic bond is strengthened by the remembrance of the personal service of that brilliant young French nobleman, the Marquis de Lafayette.

At a dinner party in Germany he heard of the revolted colonies battling for freedom in America. His inborn love of liberty was aroused, and he determined to offer his life and his fortune in the glorious cause, believing, as he said, that "the welfare of America is closely bound up with the welfare of mankind." He had inherited a great fortune, and, fitting out a vessel secretly at his own expense, he embarked on the sea and reached the shore of South Carolina -- two years to the day after the battle of Lexington. Proceeding to Philadelphia, he offered to Congress his services without pay, was made a major general by that body, became a member of the military family of Washington, and soon entered the depths of that great man's heart. Valiantly he served through the war; and he returned, rejoicing at its close, to rejoin his youthful wife in his native land. In the course of our history many other foreigners have won the applause and homage of the American people; but the name of no other stands, or can ever stand, so high as the name of Lafayette.

There were a few others also from foreign shores whose services in the War for Independence cannot be forgotten by a grateful people. Among these was another liberty-loving Frenchman, the Baron de Kalb, who came in the same ship with Lafayette. Faithfully he served as a major general in New Jersey and Maryland and later in the South, where he fell at Camden with eleven wounds, and died soon after the battle. Among the names not to be forgotten is that of the Polish patriot, Thaddeus Kosciusko. A youth of twenty years, he joined the army in 1776, and as an engineer became one of the most useful men in the service. At the close of the war he returned to his native land and became the leader of his countrymen against the combined attack of the powers that had determined on the division of Poland. But his little band was routed at Macieowice by a vast army, and Kosciusko fell, covered with wounds, uttering the sadly prophetic words, "This is the end of Poland."3 Still another brave defender of liberty we must note from this same unhappy Poland, Count Pulaski, the son of a rich nobleman who perished in the defense of his country. Pulaski made his way to America, became an effective leader of cavalry, and at last, in the siege of Savannah, gave his life to the cause that he loved above all things -- the cause of Liberty. One of the most useful of our foreign helpers was the German nobleman, Baron Steuben. He joined the army late in 1777, was made inspector general, and greatly raised the effetiveness of the army, by introducing discipline and drill according to the best European standards. At the close of the war Steuben was granted a pension by Congress, and a large tract of land near the site of the battle of Oriskany by the state of New York. On this tract he built a house and lived happily among his servants and tenants until his death in 1794. Among the friends of America at this period we cannot omit the name of Frederick the Great, king of Prussia, who later sent a sword to Washington with the inscription, "From the oldest general in Europe to the greatest general on earth." Frederick was then the most powerful personage in Europe. He had been greatly aided by England during the Seven Years' War; but he could not conceal his sympathy with the patriots, and he proved it by opening the port of Dantzig to American cruisers and by refusing to permit any more Hessians to pass through his dominions en route to America. He refused, however, to negotiate a treaty at that time with the United States.

Another item of foreign news is very interesting at this point. The astonishing tidings of Burgoyne's surrender spread dismay in the royal party in England, and in February, 1778, Lord North arose in the Commons and proposed that every point for which the Americans contended in the beginning be yielded by Parliament. This humiliating act passed both houses and was signed by the king in March. But it was too late, and the commissioners sent to treat with Congress were received with scorn, as America refused all overtures except on the ground of independence.

Two days after King George had signed this act, the news of the French treaty with America was made known to England, and war was soon declared against France. Lord North then determined to resign his office, and the nation, in its distress, turned to the Great Commoner. It was believed that he and he alone could yet conciliate America. The king, with his usual obstinacy, hesitated to put the government into the hands of his old enemy. He would probably have been forced to do so by public opinion had not death come to his rescue by removing Chatham. The Great Commoner was making his last speech before the Lords, and his subject was that America must not be lost to England. Bandaged in flannels and leaning on crutches, he awakened to his theme, and the light of other days shone from his eyes. He finished, but soon rose again to answer a reply, when he fell to the floor in a swoon. He was carried to his home by loving hands, and a few weeks later he passed away, at the age of threescore years and ten. North was now prevailed on to continue as premier, and the war went on.


1It was Turgot who said of Franklin, Eripuit coelo fulmen sceptrumque tyrannis. [return]

2A monument was recently erected in Washington to commemorate French aid in the Revolution. [return]

3To this fall the poet Campbell refers in his couplet: --

"Hope for a season bade the earth farewell,
And Freedom shrieked when Kosciusko fell."

After the downfall of his nation Kosciusko lived quietly in France. He visited the United States in 1797 and received a pension and a grant of land from Congress. [return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter XIII p. 275-279. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.

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