Our Oldest Ally

Our oldest ally is France, the nation that proved vital in our War for Independence.  I sometimes share the annoyance felt by many Americans towards France.

My attitude in regard to France is often similar to that of President Johnson, after French President Charles de Gaulle ordered all American troops out of France in 1964:

In 1964 French President Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from NATO’s military structure. He ordered all American military personnel out of France. American President Lyndon Johnson directed Secretary of State Dean Rusk to visit de Gaulle personally and ask de Gaulle a single question.

“You tell de Gaulle that this question is from the mouth of the President of the United States of America,” he told Rusk. Rusk balked when Johnson told him the question, saying, “I cannot say that to the president of France.” Johnson replied, “You tell him exactly what I said.”

In Paris de Gaulle, standing behind his desk, restated his order to Rusk for American troops to be withdrawn. Rusk told him, “I am directed by President Johnson to ask you this question. It is from the mouth of the President of the United States: ‘Does your order include the bodies of American soldiers in France’s cemeteries?’”

Rusk later related that the question hit de Gaulle so hard that he collapsed into his chair and did not respond for a full minute.

At times I even emotionally agree with the characterization of groundskeeper Willie in the Simpsons of the French being “cheese eating surrender monkeys”, even though I know intellectually that the French have usually fought with great valor in their wars.

However then something like this comes along and I repent of my anti-French prejudice.

France serving as our ally in the American Revolution not only helped us win our freedom but also began to dispel the anti-Catholic prejudice held by most Americans prior to the Revolution.  After the alliance the British attempted to use anti-Catholicism to convince Americans to abandon the fight.  Here is a portion of a proclamation by the American traitor Benedict Arnold after he had turned his coat:

“What is America now but a land of widows, orphans, and beggars?–and should the parent nation cease her exertions to deliver you, what security remains to you even for the enjoyment of the consolations of that religion for which your fathers braved the ocean, the heathen, and the wilderness? Do you know that the eye which guides this pen lately saw your mean and profligate Congress at mass for the soul of a Roman Catholic in Purgatory, and participating in the rites of a Church, against whose antichristian corruptions your pious ancestors would have witnessed with their blood.”

The effort proved futile.  Except for the Tory minority, Americans saw that the French were fighting to assist them and not to impose either French rule or the Catholic church upon them.  On July 4, 1779, at the invitation of the French minister Gerard, members of the Continental Congress attended Mass at St. Mary’s in Philadelphia for a Te Deum for American independence.

Om March 15, 1790 George Washington replied to a letter from Catholic well wishers with this letter which stated in part:  “And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed. “

Americans in general, and Catholic Americans in particular, have a reason for being fond of France.

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Published in: on November 27, 2009 at 6:37 am  Comments (15)  
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15 Comments

  1. I don’t have a good sense of the scope of French support for the American cause. The cursory readings on the US War for Independence – taken in context with the larger conflict between the British and French – that I have made over the years suggests to me that the French support was begrudging and almost too late. The XYZ Affair, in particular, makes me wonder if French support was as sure as we like to think.

    More to the point though is that France has been a less sure friend than the UK through much of our history and, since French interests and UK interests have run counter to one another for much of that period, a less likely ally.

  2. The XYZ Affair, in particular, makes me wonder if French support was as sure as we like to think.

    To be fair, this occurred after the French Revolution completely altered the French government. And while self-interest explains much of the French involvement in our Revolutionary War (then again, doesn’t self-interest always play a role?), there were men like Lafayette who were genuine allies and friends.

    As for our relationship with the former motherland – I don’t believe we had friendly relationships with the Brits until about the WWI period. For well over a century the mutal relationship was at best cold. All that being said, it seems we’ve had hot/cold relationships with the two powers, though I don’t really think that we have been as close with France since their revolution.

  3. Self interest should be the baseline for international relations and I don’t fault France, or any other nation, for acting with pragmatism. However, the French Revolution was really close in time to our own and to the Ratification. Thus, I think the XYZ Affair cannot be too easily dismissed as an indicator of French intent DURING the Revolution.

    Re-reading the original post, I was again struck by the sentence: “[e]xcept for the Tory minority, Americans saw that the French were fighting to assist them and not to impose either French rule or the Catholic church upon them.”

    Is this strictly true? I can’t say that I have ever read a piece discussing American sentiment towards the French or the English following the Revolutionary period. Perhaps it is so. That Francophile sentiment must have been placed under considerable strain as Europe was plunged into the Napoleonic wars though.

    I suppose I am guessing more than anything that, once the War of 1812 settled the seamen’s crisis – intercepting US ships and impressing our seamen – things became better.

    Any summary texts that you suggest to illuminate the topic?

  4. Francophile sentiment was quite pronounced in the early Republic. The Federalists became rather Francophobic due to the excesses of the French Revolution, while the Jeffersonian Republicans tended to continue to be Francophiles, the XYZ affair and the quasi war with France notwithstanding.

    Relations with England tended to remain cold on the whole through the end of the Civil War, although skilled diplomacy on both sides avoided war which was a distinct possibility on several occasions including 1846 over the Oregon boundary and 1861 over the Trent affair.

  5. Allies, pfui!
    They were on our side in 1776 to get back at England, not because they loved us.
    We had just as much reason to go with them in 1812 as with the British.
    During our Civil War they sought to take advantage by putting the soi-diant “Emperor” Maximillian on the throne in Mexico and were urging the UK to recognise the CSA.
    So, no, the US wouldn’t exist w/o French help in 1776 but their record since then is spotty at best.

    Otoh, if I were French my gratitude to the US might be limited. In WWI we were only dragged in by German stupidity (the Lusitania, the Zimmermann telegram) and in WWII we came in after Pearl Harbor so it isn’t like we sprang to their defence in either case.

  6. Revenge against the English was an important factor of course in bringing France into the war. However, there was also a fair amount of popular enthusiasm for the American Revolution, as typified by the Marquis de Lafayette.

  7. TC raises an interesting counterpoint that I hadn’t considered: Have we been good friends to the French?

    At least our recent history suggests we were much more comfortable with defining our exterior conflicts as aiding our British brothers. Our largest land gains were at the expense of the French during the decades immediately after the Ratification and, unless I am more greatly influenced by Hawthorne et al. than history, the American colonialists cost France its ascendancy on this continent through the French and Indian Wars.

    Given that backdrop, I wonder that the French helped at all… except that the American Revolutionaries proved to be an excellent proxy.

    The Marquis de Lafayette and other idealists and adventurers color the Revolution but I wonder if the actions of Louis XVI’s administration were not more pragmatic than idealist. Bankrupt and under considerable democratic strain to alter the French Constitution, I can’t help but think that France NEEDED a military victory with law costs.

    I wonder then whether the idealism was as general as we are suggesting or merely part of the necessary myth that surrounds the founding of our country.

  8. and, by “law costs” of course I mean “low costs.”

  9. Yes, but the French government, although broke, wasn’t bankrupt until AFTER they assisted us with the American Revolution (which was pragmatic…. ol’ Louis wasn’t crazy about democracy — he was just p.o’d at Britain). If anything, I would think the French would be grateful to us because it was the inspiration of the American success that helped spurred the French Revolution….

  10. If anything, I would think the French would be grateful to us because it was the inspiration of the American success that helped spurred the French Revolution….

    I think if I were French, I’d be p.o.’d at the United States precisely because of that.

  11. If anything, I would think the French would be grateful to us because it was the inspiration of the American success that helped spurred the French Revolution….

    I think if I were French, I’d be p.o.’d at the United States precisely because of that.
    ….

    And the monarchy was a good thing? At least after the chaos of the Revolution they got Napoleon….

  12. :)

  13. And the monarchy was a good thing?

    Compared to what came after, yep.

  14. Compared to the Reign of Terror, yes, I’ll agree…
    Compared to Napoleon, especially during his First Consul years, I would beg to differ.

  15. Hmm, now I am intrigued. Are you referring to the general prestige of France under Napoleon, or the conditions of the people at large under Bonaparte in terms of freedom and well-being? I honestly don’t know that much about this precise period post-revolution and would be interested in a little edumucation.


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