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Washington and His Comrades: Chapter VIII

The Alliance with France and its Results

Washington badly needed aid from Europe, but there every important government was monarchical and it was not easy for a young republic, the child of revolution, to secure an ally. France tingled with joy at American victories and sorrowed at American reverses, but motives were mingled and perhaps hatred of England was stronger than love for liberty in America. The young La Fayette had a pure zeal, but he would not have fought for the liberty of colonists in Mexico as he did for those in Virginia; and the difference was that service in Mexico would not hurt the enemy of France so recently triumphant. He hated England and said so quite openly. The thought of humiliating and destroying that “insolent nation” was always to him an inspiration. Vergennes, the French Foreign Minister, though he lacked genius, was a man of boundless zeal and energy. He was at work at four o’clock in the morning and he spent his long days in toil for his country. He believed that England was the tyrant of the seas, “the monster against whom we should be always prepared,” a greedy, perfidious neighbor, the natural enemy of France.

From the first days of the trouble in regard to the Stamp Act Vergennes had rejoiced that England’s own children were turning against her. He had French military officers in England spying on her defenses. When war broke out he showed no nice regard for the rules of neutrality and helped the colonies in every way possible. It was a French writer who led in these activities. Beaumarchais is known to the world chiefly as the creator of the character of Figaro, which has become the type of the bold, clever, witty, and intriguing rascal, but he played a real part in the American Revolution. We need not inquire too closely into his motives. There was hatred of the English, that “audacious, unbridled, shameless people,” and there was, too, the zeal for liberal ideas which made Queen Marie Antoinette herself take a pretty interest in the “dear republicans” overseas who were at the same time fighting the national enemy. Beaumarchais secured from the government money with which he purchased supplies to be sent to America. He had a great warehouse in Paris, and, under the rather fantastic Spanish name of Roderigue Hortalez & Co., he sent vast quantities of munitions and clothing to America. Cannon, not from private firms but from the government arsenals, were sent across the sea. When Vergennes showed scruples about this violation of neutrality, the answer of Beaumarchais was that governments were not bound by rules of morality applicable to private persons. Vergennes learned well the lesson and, while protesting to the British ambassador in Paris that France was blameless, he permitted outrageous breaches of the laws of neutrality.

Secret help was one thing, open alliance another. Early in 1776 Silas Deane, a member from Connecticut of the Continental Congress, was named as envoy to France to secure French aid. The day was to come when Deane should believe the struggle against Britain hopeless and counsel submission, but now he showed a furious zeal. He knew hardly a word of French, but this did not keep him from making his elaborate programme well understood. Himself a trader, he promised France vast profits from the monopoly of the trade of America when independence should be secure. He gave other promises not more easy of fulfillment. To Frenchmen zealous for the ideals of liberty and seeking military careers in America he promised freely commissions as colonels and even generals and was the chief cause of that deluge of European officers which proved to Washington so annoying. It was through Deane’s activities that La Fayette became a volunteer. Through him came too the proposal to send to America the Comte de Broglie who should be greater than colonel or general–a generalissimo, a dictator. He was to brush aside Washington, to take command of the American armies, and by his prestige and skill to secure France as an ally and win victory in the field. For such services Broglie asked only despotic power while he served and for life a great pension which would, he declared, not be one-hundredth part of his real value. That Deane should have considered a scheme so fantastic reveals the measure of his capacity, and by the end of 1776 Benjamin Franklin was sent to Paris to bring his tried skill to bear upon the problem of the alliance. With Deane and Franklin as a third member of the commission was associated Arthur Lee who had vainly sought aid at the courts of Spain and Prussia. France was, however, coy. The end of 1776 saw the colonial cause at a very low ebb, with Washington driven from New York and about to be driven from Philadelphia. Defeat is not a good argument for an alliance. France was willing to send arms to America and willing to let American privateers use freely her ports. The ship which carried Franklin to France soon busied herself as a privateer and reaped for her crew a great harvest of prize money. In a single week of June, 1777, this ship captured a score of British merchantmen, of which more than two thousand were taken by Americans during the war. France allowed the American privateers to come and go as they liked, and gave England smooth words, but no redress. There is little wonder that England threatened to hang captured American sailors as pirates.

It was the capture of Burgoyne at Saratoga which brought decision to France. That was the victory which Vergennes had demanded before he would take open action. One British army had surrendered. Another was in an untenable position in Philadelphia. It was known that the British fleet had declined. With the best of it in America, France was the more likely to win successes in Europe. The Bourbon king of France could, too, draw into the war the Bourbon king of Spain, and Spain had good ships. The defects of France and Spain on the sea were not in ships but in men. The invasion of England was not improbable and then less than a score of years might give France both avenging justice for her recent humiliation and safety for her future. Britain should lose America, she should lose India, she should pay in a hundred ways for her past triumphs, for the arrogance of Pitt, who had declared that he would so reduce France that she should never again rise. The future should belong not to Britain but to France. Thus it was that fervent patriotism argued after the defeat of Burgoyne. Frederick the Great told his ambassador at Paris to urge upon France that she had now a chance to strike England which might never again come. France need not, he said, fear his enmity, for he was as likely to help England as the devil to help a Christian. Whatever doubts Vergennes may have entertained about an open alliance with America were now swept away. The treaty of friendship with America was signed on February 6, 1778. On the 13th of March the French ambassador in London told the British Government, with studied insolence of tone, that the United States were by their own declaration independent. Only a few weeks earlier the British ministry had said that there was no prospect of any foreign intervention to help the Americans and now in the most galling manner France told George III the one thing to which he would not listen, that a great part of his sovereignty was gone. Each country withdrew its ambassador and war quickly followed.

France had not tried to make a hard bargain with the Americans. She demanded nothing for herself and agreed not even to ask for the restoration of Canada. She required only that America should never restore the King’s sovereignty in order to secure peace. Certain sections of opinion in America were suspicious of France. Was she not the old enemy who had so long harassed the frontiers of New England and New York? If George III was a despot what of Louis XVI, who had not even an elected Parliament to restrain him? Washington himself was distrustful of France and months after the alliance had been concluded he uttered the warning that hatred of England must not lead to over-confidence in France. “No nation,” he said, “is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its interests.” France, he thought, must desire to recover Canada, so recently lost. He did not wish to see a great military power on the northern frontier of the United States. This would be to confirm the jeer of the Loyalists that the alliance was a case of the wooden horse in Troy; the old enemy would come back in the guise of a friend and would then prove to be master and bring the colonies under a servitude compared with which the British supremacy would seem indeed mild.

The intervention of France brought a cruel embarrassment to the Whig patriot in England. He could rejoice and mourn with American patriots because he believed that their cause was his own. It was as much the interest of Norfolk as of Massachusetts that the new despotism of a king, who ruled through a corrupt Parliament, should be destroyed. It was, however, another matter when France took a share in the fight. France fought less for freedom than for revenge, and the Englishman who, like Coke of Norfolk, could daily toast Washington as the greatest of men could not link that name with Louis XVI or with his minister Vergennes. The currents of the past are too swift and intricate to be measured exactly by the observer who stands on the shore of the present, but it is arguable that the Whigs might soon have brought about peace in England had it not been for the intervention of France. No serious person any longer thought that taxation could be enforced upon America or that the colonies should be anything but free in regulating their own affairs. George III himself said that he who declared the taxing of America to be worth what it cost was “more fit for Bedlam than a seat in the Senate.” The one concession Britain was not yet prepared to make was Independence. But Burke and many other Whigs were ready now for this, though Chatham still believed it would be the ruin of the British Empire.

Chatham, however, was all for conciliation, and it is not hard to imagine a group of wise men chosen from both sides, men British in blood and outlook, sitting round a table and reaching an agreement to result in a real independence for America and a real unity with Great Britain. A century and a quarter later a bitter war with an alien race in South Africa was followed by a result even more astounding. The surrender of Burgoyne had made the Prime Minister, Lord North, weary of his position. He had never been in sympathy with the King’s policy and since the bad news had come in December he had pondered some radical step which should end the war. On February 17, 1778, before the treaty of friendship between the United States and France had been made public, North startled the House of Commons by introducing a bill repealing the tax on tea, renouncing forever the right to tax America, and nullifying those changes in the constitution of Massachusetts which had so rankled in the minds of its people. A commission with full powers to negotiate peace would proceed at once to America and it might suspend at its discretion, and thus really repeal, any act touching America passed since 1763.

North had taken a sharp turn. The Whig clothes had been stolen by a Tory Prime Minister and if he wished to stay in office the Whigs had not the votes to turn him out. His supporters would accept almost anything in order to dish the Whigs. They swallowed now the bill, and it became law, but at the same time came, too, the war with France. It united the Tories; it divided the Whigs. All England was deeply stirred. Nearly every important town offered to raise volunteer forces at its own expense. The Government soon had fifteen thousand men recruited at private cost. Help was offered so freely that the Whig, John Wilkes, actually introduced into Parliament a bill to prohibit gifts of money to the Crown since this voluntary taxation gave the Crown money without the consent of Parliament. The British patriot, gentle as he might be towards America, fumed against France. This was no longer only a domestic struggle between parties, but a war with an age-long foreign enemy. The populace resented what they called the insolence and the treachery of France and the French ambassador was pelted at Canterbury as he drove to the seacoast on his recall. In a large sense the French alliance was not an unmixed blessing for America, since it confused the counsels of her best friends in England.

In spite of this it is probably true that from this time the mass of the English people were against further attempts to coerce America. A change of ministry was urgently demanded. There was one leader to whom the nation looked in this grave crisis. The genius of William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, had won the last war against France and he had promoted the repeal of the Stamp Act. In America his name was held in reverence so high that New York and Charleston had erected statues in his honor. When the defeat of Burgoyne so shook the ministry that North was anxious to retire, Chatham, but for two obstacles, could probably have formed a ministry. One obstacle was his age; as the event proved, he was near his end. It was, however, not this which kept him from office, but the resolve of George III. The King simply said that he would not have Chatham. In office Chatham would certainly rule and the King intended himself to rule. If Chatham would come in a subordinate position, well; but Chatham should not lead. The King declared that as long as even ten men stood by him he would hold out and he would lose his crown rather than call to office that clamorous Opposition which had attacked his American policy. “I will never consent,” he said firmly, “to removing the members of the present Cabinet from my service.” He asked North: “Are you resolved at the hour of danger to desert me?” North remained in office. Chatham soon died and, during four years still, George III was master of England. Throughout the long history of that nation there is no crisis in which one man took a heavier and more disastrous responsibility.

News came to Valley Forge of the alliance with France and there were great rejoicings. We are told that, to celebrate the occasion, Washington dined in public. We are not given the bill of fare in that scene of famine; but by the springtime tension in regard to supplies had been relieved and we may hope that Valley Forge really feasted in honor of the great event. The same news brought gloom to the British in Philadelphia, for it had the stern meaning that the effort and loss involved in the capture of that city were in vain. Washington held most of the surrounding country so that supplies must come chiefly by sea. With a French fleet and a French army on the way to America, the British realized that they must concentrate their defenses. Thus the cheers at Valley Forge were really the sign that the British must go.

Sir William Howe, having taken Philadelphia, was determined not to be the one who should give it up. Feeling was bitter in England over the ghastly failure of Burgoyne, and he had gone home on parole to defend himself from his seat in the House of Commons. There Howe had a seat and he, too, had need to be on hand. Lord George Germain had censured him for his course and, to shield himself; was clearly resolved to make scapegoats of others. So, on May 18, 1778, at Philadelphia there was a farewell to Howe, which took the form of a Mischianza, something approaching the medieval tournament. Knights broke lances in honor of fair ladies, there were arches and flowers and fancy costumes, and high-flown Latin and French, all in praise of the departing Howe. Obviously the garrison of Philadelphia had much time on its hands and could count upon, at least, some cheers from a friendly population. It is remembered still, with moralizings on the turns in human fortune, that Major Andre and Miss Margaret Shippen were the leaders in that gay scene, the one, in the days to come, to be hanged by Washington as a spy, because entrapped in the treason of Benedict Arnold, who became the husband of the other.

On May 24, 1778, Sir Henry Clinton took over from Howe the command of the British army in America and confronted a difficult problem. If d’Estaing, the French admiral, should sail straight for the Delaware he might destroy the fleet of little more than half his strength which lay there, and might quickly starve Philadelphia into surrender. The British must unite their forces to meet the peril from France, and New York, as an island, was the best point for a defense, chiefly naval. A move to New York was therefore urgent. It was by sea that the British had come to Philadelphia, but it was not easy to go away by sea. There was not room in the transports for the army and its encumbrances. Moreover, to embark the whole force, a march of forty miles to New Castle, on the lower Delaware, would be necessary and the retreating army was sure to be harassed on its way by Washington. It would besides hardly be safe to take the army by sea for the French fleet might be strong enough to capture the flotilla.

There was nothing for it but, at whatever risk, to abandon Philadelphia and march the army across New Jersey. It would be possible to take by sea the stores and the three thousand Loyalists from Philadelphia, some of whom would probably be hanged if they should be taken. Lord Howe, the naval commander, did his part in a masterly manner. On the 18th of June the British army marched out of Philadelphia and before the day was over it was across the Delaware on the New Jersey side. That same day Washington’s army, free from its long exile at Valley Forge, occupied the capital. Clinton set out on his long march by land and Howe worked his laden ships down the difficult river to its mouth and, after delay by winds, put to sea on the 28th of June. By a stroke of good fortune he sailed the two hundred miles to New York in two days and missed the great fleet of d’Estaing, carrying an army of four thousand men. On the 8th of July d’Estaing anchored at the mouth of the Delaware. Had not his passage been unusually delayed and Howe’s unusually quick, as Washington noted, the British fleet and the transports in the Delaware would probably have been taken and Clinton and his army would have shared the fate of Burgoyne.

As it was, though Howe’s fleet was clear away, Clinton’s army had a bad time in the march across New Jersey. Its baggage train was no less than twelve miles long and, winding along roads leading sometimes through forests, was peculiarly vulnerable to flank attack. In this type of warfare Washington excelled. He had fought over this country and he knew it well. The tragedy of Valley Forge was past. His army was now well trained and well supplied. He had about the same number of men as the British–perhaps sixteen thousand–and he was not encumbered by a long baggage train. Thus it happened that Washington was across the Delaware almost as soon as the British. He marched parallel with them on a line some five miles to the north and was able to forge towards the head of their column. He could attack their flank almost when he liked. Clinton marched with great difficulty. He found bridges down. Not only was Washington behind him and on his flank but General Gates was in front marching from the north to attack him when he should try to cross the Raritan River. The long British column turned southeastward toward Sandy Hook, so as to lessen the menace from Gates. Between the half of the army in the van and the other half in the rear was the baggage train.

The crisis came on Sunday the 28th of June, a day of sweltering heat. By this time General Charles Lee, Washington’s second in command, was in a good position to attack the British rear guard from the north, while Washington, marching three miles behind Lee, was to come up in the hope of overwhelming it from the rear. Clinton’s position was difficult but he was saved by Lee’s ineptitude. He had positive instructions to attack with his five thousand men and hold the British engaged until Washington should come up in overwhelming force. The young La Fayette was with Lee. He knew what Washington had ordered, but Lee said to him: “You don’t know the British soldiers; we cannot stand against them.” Lee’s conduct looks like deliberate treachery. Instead of attacking the British he allowed them to attack him. La Fayette managed to send a message to Washington in the rear; Washington dashed to the front and, as he came up, met soldiers flying from before the British. He rode straight to Lee, called him in flaming anger a “damned poltroon,” and himself at once took command. There was a sharp fight near Monmouth Court House. The British were driven back and only the coming of night ended the struggle. Washington was preparing to renew it in the morning, but Clinton had marched away in the darkness. He reached the coast on the 30th of June, having lost on the way fifty-nine men from sunstroke, over three hundred in battle, and a great many more by desertion. The deserters were chiefly Germans, enticed by skillful offers of land. Washington called for a reckoning from Lee. He was placed under arrest, tried by court-martial, found guilty, and suspended from rank for twelve months. Ultimately he was dismissed from the American army, less it appears for his conduct at Monmouth than for his impudent demeanor toward Congress afterwards.