The Franco-American Alliance and U.S. Independence

Among the four paintings prominently displayed in the U.S. Capitol is the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull (known as the “Painter of the Revolution” for his many iconic depictions of the war and period; you’ll recognize many of them if you look him up).

The painting is fully described in the article text.
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The painting shows the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, which marks the decisive end of the American Revolution. Flanked on one side of the defeated general are Americans carrying the Stars and Stripes, and on the other French soldiers beneath the banner of France’s monarchy—the two forces portrayed as equal combatants. Trumbull’s decision to show French and Americans as identical victors reflected widespread acknowledgement that the U.S. owed its independence to the Kingdom of France. (Ironically, the world’s first modern republic was birthed with the help of one of its oldest and most absolute monarchies—more so than Great Britain’s!)

Almost as many French troops took part in the final battle as Americans; one of the two military columns that secured victory was entirely French. Meanwhile, the French Navy had kept British ships from coming to Cornwallis’ aid, prompting him to surrender—and the British to sue for peace. Even this already-critical contribution is just one example of decisive French aid.

Well before the Declaration of Independence, the Founders actively sought an alliance with France: While the French monarchy was everything the revolution stood against—heck, it was more authoritarian than even Britain’s—the Patriots were pragmatic enough to recognize that only the French had both the motive and means to take on the British, to whom they lost all their North American colonies just a decade before, in the Seven Years’ War (to say nothing of centuries of rivalry and mutual enmity).Indeed, France’s foreign minister urged the king to support the Americans, arguing that “[destiny] had marked out this moment for the humiliation of England.”

Hence why the Founders pursued a two-year diplomatic mission, led by noted Francophile Benjamin Franklin, to court the French for as much aid and support as possible.

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The alliance was not merely opportunistic: Most of the Founders were avid consumers of French political philosophy, which promoted ideals of individual liberty and political representation. As far back as the 1760s, it was trendy for Americans to favor France over their English overlords; as one historian notes, “It became almost a patriotic duty for colonists to admire France as a counterpoise to an increasingly hostile England”. France’s powerful monarchy helped spur many French thinkers to explore better political alternatives—and in the process, inspire Americans across the Atlantic.

Patrick Henry’s famous exhortation, “Give me freedom or give me death!”, which convinced the colonists to prepare for war, echoed French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who opened his influential 1762 work, The Social Contract, with the words “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains”. Rousseau’s core argument—predating the American Revolution by over a decade—is familiar to us now: Sovereignty rested not in a monarch, but in the people, with laws needing to reflect the common good, not the whims of an aristocratic elite. These ideals were channeled by Thomas Jefferson—another avid reader and noted Francophile—in the language of the Declaration of Independence. The U.S. Constitution may have drawn from the even older work of Baron de Montesquieu, who forty years before published “The Spirit of the Laws”, which laid out many familiar principles: That the executive, legislative, and judicial functions of government should be separated, so that each branch can keep the other in check; that laws should ensure a fair trial, presumption of innocence and proportional punishments; and that people had the freedom of thought, speech and assembly (he also argued against slavery, though sadly that did not take root until much later).

Lafayette (right) depicted alongside George Washington at Valley Forge. John Ward Dunsmore (1907)

In any event, the admiration was mutual: Many French, including those who directly aided and fought in the American Revolution, were reeling under the monarchy and sought change; many of the political philosophers beloved by the Founders, including Rousseau and Montesquieu, faced persecution and even exile for their writings. To many in France, the nascent American republic signified their ideals made real, an experiment they wanted to succeed so it could perhaps be a model to their own efforts. (It is no coincidence that the French Revolution—which was bolder but bloodier than our own—would occur less than two decades after America’s.)

But as important as the ideological support was the practical kind. Even the most noble efforts require money to succeed, and France—then one of the world’s wealthiest countries—provided open-ended credit to the tune of billions of dollars. American troops, who initially lacked even basic goods like boots and winter jackers, received those supplies and more: By some measures, 90% of American gunpowder was of French origin, as were a similar proportion of U.S. armaments at Yorktown.

The Comte de Rochambeau, who is pictured as Washington’s equal in the Surrender of Yorktown, led the French Expeditionary Force that helped secure American victory—and which remains the only foreign allied force ever to campaign on American soil. Other brilliant Frenchmen like the Marquis de Lafayette, Louis Duportail, and Pierre L’Enfant played leading roles in the war and were personal friends and aides to George Washington (L’Enfant even helped design the nation’s capital). Tens of thousands more French served as soldiers and sailors, with the latter making up the bulk of our naval force.

Beyond the military dimension, France’s diplomatic heft could not be understated: As the first country to recognize American independence, it provided considerable legitimacy to the Patriot’s cause; if one of the most powerful countries in the world saw something in these upstart Americans, why shouldn’t other nations? Sure enough, France managed to get other powers like Spain and the Dutch Republic to throw in their lot with the Americans—turning what could have been just another self-contained rebellion into a full-fledged world war that stretched British forces thin. France even helped broker the peace deal that finally secured British recognition of U.S. independence—the “Treaty of Paris”—after refusing Britain’s offer of a separate peace deal without the Americans (a pretty solid ally indeed).

Source: Wikipedia; Encyclopedia Britannica; How Did the French Help Win the American Revolution? – HISTORY

The Unsung Mediators

As with most things, it is easier to focus on the failures than the successes—especially when success is measured by the bad things that never happened. The absence of tragedy does not feel as salient as its occurrence, which makes it easy to take for granted.

This is especially the case with diplomacy and global conflict resolution, which usually happens behind closed doors to allow the parties to save face. Imagine how many wars never happened because cooler heads prevailed, often with the help of nameless and faceless diplomats.

The Cuban Missile Crisis brought us to the brink of World War III, but few know, let alone appreciate, that it was the newly appointed Secretary-General of the United Nations—a soft-spoken career diplomat from Burma named U Thant—who persuaded both sides to walk back from the brink and provided a mutually acceptable resolution. American and Russian officials credited the UN, and Thant in particular, for helping deescalate the conflict; JFK remarked that “U Thant has put the world deeply in his debt.”

We see this again with UNIFIL, a multinational UN force that has been stationed at the Lebanon-Israel border since 1978 to keep the peace between the two nations. On its face, the mission has been an abject failure: skirmishes between Lebanese militias and Israeli forces continue to this day, even leading to outright war in 2006. Both sides, as well as the U.S., regard UNIFIL as worthless and often call for its mandate to end.

But an official in the Lebanese government noted that there were plenty of flare ups that had been diffused, or even prevented, through negotiations mediated by local UN forces. For all the conflicts it failed to avert—and that subsequently capture all the attention—there were just as many, if not more, that never happened because of UNIFIL intervention behind the scenes.

These are just two examples. Who knows how many more “almost-wars” and tragedies are being avoided every day, even as we speak, by thankless diplomats, negotiators, and mediators.