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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

Its principal member was Benjamin Franklin


As

early as 1776 a mission had been sent to Versailles to solicit on behalf of the colonists the aid of France. Its principal member was Benjamin Franklin, the one revolutionary leader of the first rank who came from the Northern colonies. He had all the shrewdness and humour of the Yankee with an enlarged intelligence and a wide knowledge of men which made him an almost ideal negotiator in such a cause. Yet for some time his mission hung fire. France had not forgotten her expulsion from the North American continent twenty years before. She could not but desire the success of the colonists and the weakening or dismemberment of the British Empire. Moreover, French public opinion--and its power under the Monarchy, though insufficient, was far greater than is now generally understood--full of the new ideals which were to produce the Revolution, was warmly in sympathy with the rebellion. But, on the other hand, an open breach with England involved serious risks. France was only just recovering from the effects of a great war in which she had on the whole been worsted, and very decidedly worsted, in the colonial field. The revolt of the English colonies might seem a tempting opportunity for revenge; but suppose that the colonial resistance collapsed before effective aid could arrive? Suppose the colonists merely used the threat of French intervention to extort terms from England and then made common cause against the foreigner? These obvious considerations made the French statesmen hesitate.
Aid was indeed given to the colonial rebels, especially in the very valuable form of arms and munitions, but it was given secretly and unofficially, with the satirist Beaumarchais, clever, daring, unscrupulous and ready to push his damaged fortunes in any fashion, as unaccredited go-between. But in the matter of open alliance with the rebels against the British Government France temporized, nor could the utmost efforts of Franklin and his colleagues extort a decision.

Saratoga extorted it. On the one hand it removed a principal cause of hesitation. After such a success it was unlikely that the colonists would tamely surrender. On the other it made it necessary to take immediate action. Lord North's attitude showed clearly that the British Government was ready to make terms with the colonists. It was clearly in the interests of France that those terms should be refused. She must venture something to make sure of such a refusal. With little hesitation the advisers of the French Crown determined to take the plunge. They acknowledged the revolted colonies as independent States, and entered into a defensive alliance with these States against Great Britain. That recognition and alliance immediately determined the issue of the war. What would have happened if it had been withheld cannot be certainly determined. It seems not unlikely that the war would have ended as the South African War ended, in large surrenders of the substance of Imperial power in return for a theoretic acknowledgment of its authority. But all this is speculative. The practical fact is that England found herself, in the middle of a laborious, and so far on the whole unsuccessful, effort to crush the rebellion of her colonies, confronted by a war with France, which, through the close alliance then existing between the two Bourbon monarchies, soon became a war with both France and Spain. This change converted the task of subjugation from a difficult but practicable one, given sufficient time and determination, to one fundamentally impossible.


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