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American Revolution: Treaty of Alliance (1778)


American Revolution: Treaty of Alliance (1778)

Treaty of Alliance with France, 1778

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Treaty of Alliance (1778) Background:

As the American Revolution progressed, it became obvious to the Continental Congress that foreign aid and alliances would be necessary to achieve victory. In the wake of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, a template was created for potential commercial treaties with France and Spain. Based on the ideals of free and reciprocal trade, this Model Treaty was approved by Congress on September 17, 1776. The following day, Congress appointed a group of commissioners, led by Benjamin Franklin, and dispatched them to France to negotiate an agreement.

Pleased with the Declaration of Independence and the recent American victory at the Siege of Boston, the French Foreign Minister, Comte de Vergennes, was initially in support of a full alliance with the rebelling colonies. This quickly cooled following General George Washington's defeat in the New York Campaign that summer and fall. Arriving in Paris, Franklin was warmly received by the French aristocracy and became popular in influential social circles. Seen as a representative of republican simplicity and honesty, Franklin worked to bolster the American cause behind the scenes.

Aid to the Americans:

Franklin's arrival was noted by the government of King Louis XVI, but despite the king's interest in assisting the Americans, the country's financial and diplomatic situations precluded providing outright military aid. An effective diplomat, Franklin was able to work through back channels to open a stream of covert aid from France to America, as well as began recruiting officers, such as the Marquis de Lafayette and Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. Despite French reservations, talks regarding an alliance progressed.

The French Convinced:

Vacillating over an alliance with the Americans, Vergennes spent much of 1777 working to secure an alliance with Spain. In doing so, he eased Spain's concerns over American intentions regarding Spanish lands in the Americas. Following the American victory at the Battles of Saratoga in the fall of 1777, and concerned about secret British peace overtures to the Americans, Vergennes and Louis XVI elected to forego waiting for Spanish support and offered Franklin an official military alliance.

The Treaty of Alliance (1778):

Meeting at the Hotel de Crillon on February 6, 1778, Franklin, along with fellow commissioners Silas Deane and Arthur Lee signed the treaty for the United States while France was represented by Conrad Alexandre Gérard de Rayneval. In addition, the men signed the Franco-American Treaty of Amity and Commerce which was largely based on the Model Treaty. The Treaty of Alliance (1778) was a defensive agreement stating that France would ally with the United States if the former went to war with Britain. In the case of war, the two nations would work together to defeat the common foe.

The treaty also set forth land claims for after the conflict and essentially granted the United States all territory conquered in North America while France would retain those lands and islands captured in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. In regard to ending the conflict, the treaty dictated that neither side would make peace without the consent of the other and that the United States' independence would be recognized by Britain. An article was also included stipulating that additional nations may join the alliance in the hope that Spain would enter the war.

Effects of the Treaty of Alliance (1778):

On March 13, 1778, the French government informed London that they had formally recognized the independence of the United States and had concluded the Treaties of Alliance and Amity and Commerce. Four days later, Britain declared war on France formally activating the alliance. Spain would enter the war in June 1779 after concluding the Treaty of Aranjuez with France. The entry of France into the war proved a key turning point in the conflict. French arms and supplies began to flow across the Atlantic to the Americans.

In addition, the threat posed by the French military forced Britain to redeploy forces from North America to defend other parts of the empire. As result, the scope of British action in North America was limited. Though initial Franco-American operations at Newport, RI and Savannah, GA proved unsuccessful, the arrival of a French army in 1780, led by Comte de Rochambeau would prove key to the war's final campaign. Supported by Rear Admiral Comte de Grasse's French fleet which defeated the British at the Battle of the Chesapeake, Washington and Rochambeau moved south from New York in September 1781.

Cornering the British army of Major General Lord Charles Cornwallis, they defeated him at the Battle of Yorktown in September-October 1781. Cornwallis' surrender effectively ended the fighting in North America. During 1782, relations between the allies became strained as the British began pressing for peace. Though largely negotiating independently, the Americans concluded the Treaty of Paris in 1783 which ended the war between Britain and the United States. In accordance with the Treaty of Alliance, this peace agreement was first reviewed and approved by the French.

Nullification of the Alliance:

With the end of the war, people in the United States began to question the duration of the treaty as no end date to the alliance was stipulated. While some, such as Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, believed that the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 ended the agreement, others such as Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson believed that it remained in effect. With the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, most European leaders agreed that treaties with France were null and void. Despite this, Jefferson believed the treaty to be valid and was backed by President Washington.

As the Wars of the French Revolution began to consume Europe, Washington's Proclamation of Neutrality and the subsequent Neutrality Act of 1794 eliminated many of the treaty's military provisions. Franco-American relations began a steady decline which was worsened by the 1794 Jay Treaty between the United States and Britain. This began several years of diplomatic incidents which culminated with the undeclared Quasi-War of 1798-1800. Fought largely at sea, it was ended by the Treaty of Mortefontaine (Convention of 1800) on September 30, 1800. This agreement officially ended the alliance created by the 1778 treaty.

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