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The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy Review


The American War of Independence was not just the United States and Britain fighting, but rather a true world war, fought between Britain against the United States and its allies and cobelligerents of France, Spain, the Netherlands, and a host of smaller principalities and tribes around the world, from North America, to the Caribbean, to Africa, to the Indian Ocean, and of course, in Europe. The centerpiece of this great alliance was France, and the mainstay of the French effort was a war at sea. Jonathan Dull's book The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy is a crucial work to understand this struggle, looking at the operational and strategic nature of the French naval war, and how it related to France's objectives and diplomacy, particularly with its allies but also with its enemies. It serves to give a book which holistically covers the course of French involvement in the war, and which gives a rare degree of context and detail to its origins and outcome.

Dull's preface states his intention with the book, to write one not linked so much to battles as Mahan was, which linked together military history and diplomacy to show how the former impacted the latter, and to center it around the key figure of the Count de Vergennes, from 1774 to 1787 when he died, the principal author of French intervention.

The Count de Vergennes, a vital figure in the French role in the American War of Independence

The Count de Vergennes, a vital figure in the French role in the American War of Independence

Chapter 1, "1774 - The Inheritance of Louis XVI" is devoted to the state of France at the time of the accession of Louis XIV, showing a kingdom at peace, in a relatively calm international diplomatic situation, one with stable and assured French political leadership, one which had at its center the Count de Vergennes, minister of state and foreign minister. But France was threatened by the rise of Britain in the international balance of power, and even worse, that the European continental powers were becoming increasingly aggressive and predatory: to stop them, France needed to reduce Britain to a more equivalent level of power, contradictorily to reconciliate with Britain to be able to direct France's strength to keeping order in Europe and her position secure. This would be the constant element of Vergenne's policy. At the same time, the navy was less steady, with ill-conceived reforms throwing in into chaos, and significant numerical inferiority vis-à-vis Britain. Improving the navy would be vital for gaining France freedom of maneuver.

"1775 - An Empire at Peace, an Empire at War," looks over the general structure of the French navy and the French empire abroad, showing a navy which was still largely on peacetime footing, unprepared for war, without major plans for expansion, and limited naval supplies. As revolt began in British North America, the French looked on with interest, but so far did little.

"1776 - The Beginning of Limited Intervention," tracks how the French shifted in their stance on the American rebels, with discussion and policy drafting at the highest levels of the French government, with Vergennes backing a faction of providing aid to the Americans, opposed by Turgot who preferred to stay neutral. French motivations were driven by their belief that British trade, commercial prosperity, and naval strength depended upon possession of the United States, and that its independence would dramatically undercut this. Turgot argued by contrast that France should pay attention instead to internal reforms and strengthening: his defeat would launch a policy of French aid to the American rebels. This also began an escalating spiral in naval expenditures, despite relatively normal relations between Britain and France.

Chapter 4, "1777 - The Failure of Limited Intervention" sees extensive preparation in France for military activities, and further declines in good relations with Britain caused both by naval build ups and the usage of French ports by American privateers. French diplomacy struggled to get Spain to join them in a war against England, but the die for war was cast by American victory at Saratoga, causing the French to be convinced that the Americans could win, but needed French assistance to complete their victory.

Chapter 5, "1778 - War without Spain" covers the beginning of war with Britain, where the French had effective parity in naval forces - but only momentarily, since as additional British forces were mobilized, the French navy would be outmatched. The French went ahead and signed a treaty of commerce, amity, and a defensive alliance with the US. French strategy would focus on sending their fleet to aid the Americans, while tying down the British in Europe. The opening year was mostly indecisive, which made the Spanish alliance even more crucial: but Spain's intervention was not automatic.

Chapter 6, "1779 - War at the Center" involves a renewed offensive, this time Franco-Spanish, to invade the Isle of Wright, backed by their combined navies, and the activation of the Franco-Spanish family compact which brought the Spanish into the war. This plan did not succeed due to extensive difficulties in coordination and preparation, and the plan itself was changed multiple times: the result was an indecisive affair without any real accomplishments on either side. Admiral Estaing similarly failed to achieve much of note in North America.

Chapter 7, "1780 - War at the Periphery" - relates one of the greatest defeats for the Allied cause, with the crushing of a Spanish fleet by British admiral Rodney off of Cape Saint Vincent, and a relief of Gibraltar. The Netherlands however, began to shift to the French side, due to English violation of their neutrality, which would become further intensified by the League of Armed Neutrality of Denmark, Sweden, and Russia which the Dutch wished to join and which the British were opposed to. From now on, much of the Allied emphasis would be in the Americas, with major convoys which would bring troops and ships to the colonies - which the British failed to intercept. The most radical Spanish proposals to focus on the Americas however, were rejected, and almost led to a breakdown of the Franco-Spanish alliance, and certainly to a major change in the French council, as the naval minister Sartine was replaced by the Marquis de Castries.

British defeat at Yorktown was only possible due to the role of the French navy and the victories it won.

British defeat at Yorktown was only possible due to the role of the French navy and the victories it won.

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1781 would be a turning point in the war, and is fittingly titled "1781 - The 'Annus Mirabilis.'" Its beginning was marked by the proposals for negotiation at the beginning of the war, attempting to use Russian mediation, and there were further crises with Spain. Things cleared up after further Spanish-French negotiations. Minorca was successfully taken, and the large activities of Allied ships in Europe led to the British being unable to dispatch enough ships to North America, where the French admiral De Grasse dispatched his fleet from the Caribbean, in nearly its entirety, in a bold move which rendezvoused with Franco-American forces at Yorktown, beat off a British fleet, and forced the surrender of a major British field army. Numerous British Caribbean islands were captured as well. A French fleet under the famous commander Suffren saved Dutch South Africa from falling, and events had progressed miraculously well for the French - although a storm and English fleet would scatter a crucial French convoy being sent to provide the forces to take Jamaica.

Chapter 9 "1782 - Disintegration and Reprieve" covers the last Allied victories, although marred too with defeats. More islands were captured in the Caribbean, but an assault on Gibraltar failed, while an attack on Jamaica was foiled in a French defeat at the Battle of the Saints. Most importantly, serious diplomatic negotiations began, long and complicated due particularly due to the Spanish refusal to accept peace with Gibraltar and only achieved due to concessions elsewhere, but which ultimately consecrated an Allied victory in the war after almost miraculously it seemed being agreed upon.

Chapter 10, the epilogue, covers the consequences of the war in the post-war French naval program, focused on providing a respectable fleet but not one which would alarm the English, the post-war diplomatic consequences with Franco-British trade negotiations and temporary French stabilization of the European order, and yet also the failure of the war to weaken Britain as Anglo-American trade picked up again and the English navy grew once more. Most importantly, the war weakened France from within: its attempt to stabilize the European order by war against Britain, ultimately resulted in its collapse.

The appendixes cover the naval and colonial budgets, and the ships of the line in service.

Military history is, as Jonathan Dull shows in his book, far more than simply military conflict. The ultimate goal of military forces and war is to force the enemy to carry out our will: war, and particularly naval war, is completely inseparable from diplomacy. And yet many military histories focus simply on operations, battles, technology, leadership, ignoring save for a salutary ending chapter the diplomacy underlying the beginning of war, defining its conduct, and the nature of peace. The American Revolutionary War, fought as a great coalition of the United States, France, Spain, and the Netherlands, as well as various smaller Native American and Indian powers, against the United Kingdom, is an excellent example of the importance which must be attached to this side of operations, as Dull shows how extensive negotiations, lengthy internal debate and decision making, and communications between allies defined the course of the war.

This is particularly excellent for how the war came about, as it was not inevitable that the French would decide to enter onto the American side and support the Americans against the United Kingdom. Conversely, French decision making was undergirded by substantial debate between key figures in the French government who proposed memorandums promoting or opposing involvement in the war, with Turgot, intermittent financial and naval minister, opposing intervention on the idea that colonies were less useful than generally thought to the state, and that it would represent a long running sore in the British Empire. His opponents argued that the independence of America would be a substantial blow against Great Britain, as its trade and most importantly its navy, which drew on sailors trained in the merchant marine in trade with the American colonies, would be dramatically weakened. This is extended by Dull in examining what the French hoped to gain by this British weakening: that they hoped that it would return Britain to parity with France and enable greater cooperation with Great Britain on the European scale, as had been the case in the days of Waldpole and Fleury. The latter ultimately won out in this battle of policy declarations, and Dull's analysis of this, as well as how the policy of support and aid for the American rebels gradually and inevitably escalated in tensions to the level of war with Britain, is a tremendous help for understanding the motivations for why the French supported the Americans (beyond the simplistic arguments of desiring revenge) and how this escalated to the level of outright war.

Even before the war began, one of the crucial features of the Allied side was, naturally, the importance of negotiations and communication to provide coordination to their fleets. There were substantial and lengthy communications between the French and the Spanish about what their war objectives were and how their militaries were to operate together: both sides proposed various operations and plans to the others, and on the French side there was substantial suspicion of the military efficacity of the Spaniards - although unfortunately this is not something which Dull dives into at depth for how much this matched reality. He shows the ways in which the French and the Spanish disagreed on various war aims and the talks between them to solve their differences, and how this impacted the course of the war: naval coalitions may often be frustrating, and prone to disunity, but ultimately together the French and Spanish were able to constitute the center of the alliance which defeated the British.

Dull's dexterity continues on with his skilled discussion of the delicate negotiations which led to peace, and above all else his questioning of what sort of long term impact "victory" by the French led to afterwards: while the United States became independent, the trade and commerce of the United Kingdom was hardly shaken with their former American colonies, the United Kingdom rapidly reasserted itself diplomatically in Europe, the Royal Navy would only become more powerful, and the immense cost of the war would ultimately lead to the collapse of the French monarchy. Dull is a constant advocate of the belief that war between Britain and France in the 18th century was a disaster for both: this once again, is him stressing this point.

Certainly of course, and as the author himself admits, the book makes no effort to follow the tactical side of battles in the war. He is content to only list their outcome, and without much at all in the way of mentioning what transpired during them, and only with some small details about why certain fleets were placed into such a situation beforehand that led to their failure. This can be frustrating, but it perhaps shows a tendency of 18th century warfare: that the wars of the ancien regimes were generally indecisive and that military operations tended to fail less due to tactical brilliance, or even tactical incompetence, but rather foundered upon the rocks of logistical difficulties, disease, poor communications, etc. Dull's downplaying of the tactical side of affairs makes this more clear: the war at sea during the American Revolution, other than perhaps the Battle of the Saints, was not marked by any significant decisive tactical victory, and even less by great tactical genius: it was won by the French and Spanish (albeit at terrible financial cost for the French that would in the long term undermine and destroy their monarchy and lead to revolution) due to strategic and operational victories. The operational side of affairs and strategic vision receives enough attention that this largely substitutes for the battles.

Dull's book continues to stand as the most critical and essential work on the American Revolutionary War and the French naval involvement, and for good reason. Only his book does such an excellent job of writing the diplomatic history of the war, its planning and implementation (this is particularly true on the French side, where he examines intensely the logic of the French leadership that led them into the war, scrutinizing how French policy was contrived and developed in the various memorandums and the structures of French leadership, showing how individual French leaders perceived the reason for their policy of supporting the American rebels and what their motivations were during the war), and lucidly exploring the effects. Dull's surpasses just looking at the minutiae of the war to show its broader course and outcome, although this is through looking at the minutiae of diplomatic history and can be at times difficult to work through - it is a book to be read by those who are seriously engaged in the matter. For those interested in diplomacy, the origins of the French Revolution, operational and strategic sides of naval warfare in the 18th century, French aid for the Americans in the American Revolution, and a host of other subjects ranging from 18th century economics to international relations, this is an excellent book - but one which must be understood as being devoted to this, and not to the specifics of the tactical side of the war.

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas

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