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Though it is a recognised fact that French support for the American revolutionaries was vital for their success against the British empire, the exact details are less clear.

The most obvious source is Wikipedia's article on the French contribution. Though specific details are mentioned, the problem is that they are divorced from meaningful context. For example:

As a cost of participation in the war, France accumulated over 1 billion livres in debt.

Estimates place the percentage of French supplied arms to the Americans in the Saratoga campaign at up to 90%.

By 1777, over five million livres of aid had been sent to the American rebels.

We have no way of understanding the value of these facts without putting them in a broader context. So...

I would like to understand the context of France's material contribution, with an overview of what was provided in terms of manpower, materiel, finance, and naval support during the revolutionary war.

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Question:

I would like to understand the context of France's material contribution, with an overview of what was provided in terms of the percentage of manpower, materiel, finance, and naval support during the revolutionary war?


Short Answer:


The numbers don't yield a complete "understanding" of the value of the French in the American Revolutionary war. The Colonial government was trying to raise finance and equip an army and navy; conduct a war with the most powerful wealthiest country on earth; all while trying to establish itself. All by consensus, without a reliable tax structure with a government which met part time. Even though the colonies had a strong enough economy and might have afforded to fund the war; if they had the infrastructure to tap that economy. They did not. The colonies also seemed to have the population to supply the troops they needed to defeat the British. But these numbers are misleading. The French government provided established timely infrastructure, war materials, financing and a professional well trained and equipped army and navy; on a scale which was a difference maker.

The French contribution to the American Revolution was nothing short of victory and the numbers devoid of historical perspective don't always reflect this.

  • The troops the French provided while only a small fraction of the overall troops who fought in the revolution in the Americas made up about half the troops at Yorktown which boxed Cornwallis in on the land. Most of the American troops who fought in the Revolution were militia which only activated when the British were in their state or region. 4/5ths of the soldiers who served in the Revolution returned home when the British moved behold their home boarders. 5,500 of the 8,500 French soldiers who faced Cornwallis at Yorktown Virginia marched from New Jersey along with Washington's regular army.
  • The French Navy defeated the British at the Battle of the Chesapeake and blocked the British Navy from relieving Cornwallis at Yorktown, completing the box which he found himself in Oct 1781. Blocked by land and sea.
  • The supplies the French Provided clandestinely in the Fall of 1776 basically armed and clothed the Colonial full time Army and some of its militia.
  • The financing the French supplied would be debated for more than a century and remain controversial. Which War Costs were Frances to bear, which were loans, which were gifts. The European patriots who borrowed the money were not empowered by congress to do so. After the war their would be scandals, bribes, other wars to obfuscate the numbers involved.

The Role of France in the American Revolution
French forces attempted to buy everything from the locals that they couldn’t ship in, rather than requisition it. They spent an estimated $4 million worth of precious metal in doing so, further endearing themselves to the Americans.

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Should that be an American debt or a French expense? That expense alone represents about twice the amount which congress ultimately attributed as French Revolutionary War loans.

Historians agree that the debt incurred by the French in the war contributed to the French Revolution and fall of their monarchy.

The French Alliance and the Winning of America's Revolution
The French national debt incurred during the war contributed to the fiscal crisis France experienced in the late 1780s, and that was one factor that brought on the French Revolution. In the end the French people paid a high price for helping America gain its independence.

Detailed Answer

Mainpower


Numbers:

American Revolution Faqs

  • Colonials
    • About 231,000 men served in the Continental Army although no more than 48,000 at one time. This included 148,000 who served in the militia.
    • French Forces peaked with their initial deployment of 12,000 French regulars in 1779. (US Congressional records state 20,000 French Military served in North America.)
  • British Forces
    • At its peak, the British Army had upwards of 22,000 men.
    • An additional 25,000 Loyalists, participated in the conflict
    • Nearly 30,000 German auxiliaries, or Hessians, were hired out by German princes and served alongside the British for the duration of the war.

The French manpower for example was not consistent, was absent for years of the conflict and only represented a fraction of the overall colonial manpower who fought the war in America's.

However; the French army made up 47% of the Colonial troops at Yorktown where the British General Cornwallis surrendered. Their presence and the presence of the French fleet and siege artillery were decisive reasons for Cornwallis's surrender.

Also worth mentioning France gave the United States one of it's top colonial generals of the war: General Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette was a French aristocrat and soldier who volunteered his services in the American Revolution prior to France's formal involvement. He became a major figure in the Revolution leading Colonial soldiers in the following battles.

  • Battle of Brandywine
  • Battle of Gloucester
  • Battle of Barren Hill
  • Battle of Rhode Island
  • Battle of Monmouth
  • Battle of Green Spring
  • Siege of Yorktown

Navy


The French Navy rarely entered American Waters during the Revolutionary War, instead they concentrated on attacking British Colonial possessions in the Caribbean and outside the Americas. When they did enter American waters they were mostly negated by the British Fleet. By mostly I mean always, with the exception of Yorktown where the French fleet with 26 ships played a decisive role in blocking the British Fleet from evacuating Cornwallis, forcing his surrender. One of the most decisive battles in deciding the American Revolutionary war was the Naval Battle of Chesapeake where the French Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse stopped the British fleet from re-enforcing or evacuating General Cornwallis at Yorktown. This isolated the British Commander and forced him to surrender his command.

To place the 26 ships of the French fleet which was deployed at Yorktown into "context" the Colonial Navy in 1776, had 27 ships which would seem to suggest the American Navy was comparable to the French Navy. It wasn't. The French fleet which entered American waters in 1781, consisted of mostly ships of the line, the 18th century equivalent of battleships. The American Navy consisted of frigates which could not stand up to British ships of the line. The American Navy was constructed to harass British shipping and not to engage the British navy. Almost all of the American frigates commissioned by congress were captured or sunk by 1781.

The most effective US Naval strategy was to issue letters of mark to privateers

Continental Navy
- 1,697 letters of marque being issued by the Continental Congress - Lloyd's of London estimated that 2,208 British ships were taken by Yankee privateers, amounting to almost $66 million, a significant sum at the time.

The way one should view the French Navy's contribution to the American Revolution is as a game changer. French Naval involvement turned the American Revolution into a Global War. It made the British defend possessions in a much larger theatre of operations. While not even the French Navy could compete with the British Navy head to head, forcing the British to defend this larger theatre of operations created opportunities for mismatches such as Yorktown, where the French Navy had such superior odds directly leading to the end of the war.

The French Navy's true contribution was not just the coup de grace at Yorktown but significantly weakening the British for the second half of the war. Transforming the British war strategy from one of offense, rooting out and defeating Washington; to one of defense deploying their forces globally to defend against the French.

Material


The French did not formally enter the war until Feb. 6, 1778 when the war was nearly three years old. Initially French aid was clandestined as France didn't wish to provoke war with Britain by supporting the Colonies until the Colonies proved they were for real. France placed two major restrictions on their formal support for the Colonials.

  1. The Colonials had to formally declare independence from Britain.
  2. The Colonials had to demonstrate that they could protect themselves and would not just collapse when the British committed forces to quash the rebellion.

After the first condition was met July 4, 1776, The formal Declaration of Independence was ratified the French responded with clandestined material aid.

The French Alliance
The French Alliance and Winning the American Revolutionary War
By the fall of 1776 a fictitious trading firm had already procured and shipped to the rebels nearly 300,000 pounds of gunpowder, 30,000 muskets, 3,000 tents, more than 200 pieces of artillery, and clothing for 30,000 soldiers.

To put this material aid into perspective, (as previously mentioned) throughout the war the Colonial Army never eclipsed 48,000 troops at any given time, the French clothed, armed and equipped 2/3rds of the colonial military clandestinely following the declaration of independence.

Perhaps just as important though was the artillery. Washington victory in the Siege of Boston (Jan 1776), was dependent upon the colonials (Henry Knox) ability to transport 59 pieces of captured artillery from fort Ticonderoga to Boston Harbor a distance of 300 miles. Here in the fall of 1776 the French gifted 4 times that number of artillery pieces, plus shot and gunpowder; All clandestinely.

( The second French condition was met at the Battles of Saratoga, where the colonial army defeated a British invasion under General John Burgoyne from Quebec Canada, which attempted to sever and isolate New England from the rest of the colonies. General Burgoyne's forces were defeated Oct 17, 1777 )..

Financial Aid


The Revolutionary War was fought between April 19, 1775 (Lexington and Concord) and Sept 3, 1783 (Paris Peace Treaty is signed). The Battle of Yorktown which concluded active fighting occurred Oct 19, 1781.

What makes these numbers misleading, From the French perspective they had spent (according to US Congressional papers dated 1901) 280,000,000 on the war they entered on the United States behalf, and the 2 million debt congress eventually acknowledged as debt is a woefully small percentage of their overall expenses.

STATEMENTS AND PAPERS BEFORE THE COMMITTEE ON
CLAIMS OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
ON HOUSE BILL 22534
61ST CONGRESS, 2d SESSION
MARCH 30, 1910

The United States made certain treaties in 1778 with France, under the terms of which France agreed to help us in the war of the Revolution provided we would make an offensive and defensive alliance with her. France kept her part of the treaty by spending $280,000,000 in our behalf, and furnishing 20,000 troops and 36 war vessels to help us in our war of independence. The United States secured this independence probably a good deal through the help of France ; at least that help was of material aid in bringing about the freedom which we secured.

That the United States negotiated it's 2 million dollars war loans restitution in 1831 as part of an overall settlement with France which paid the United States 5 million dollars for french seizures of American ships during the Quasi and Napoleonic Wars.

After the American Revolution the United States was initially organized under the Articles of Confederation which did not give the Federal government sufficient income to pay its own soldiers, much less foreign debt. The United States thus forfeited on its debt and the loans became worthless. At the same time the French King Louis XVI of France was deposed in September 1792 and the monarchy was abolished. The United States then declared that it no longer owed any debt to France as their loans were with the Monarchy and not the Republic. Which provoked the Quasi War where France issued letters of Mark on US shipping. United States and France came to an agreement Sept 30, 1800, The Convention of 1800 which terminated the alliance of 1778 and reaffirmed the United States neutrality in future conflicts involving France. But it left the outstanding money on both sides still up in the air. An 1831 agreement with a severely weakened France after the Napoleonic Wars is what settled the remaining U.S. Debt, American Senate and Congressional hearings on this topic continued into the 20th century.

U.S French Relations
A treaty between the United States and France in 1831 called for France to pay 25 million francs for the spoilation claims of American shipowners against French seizures during the Napoleonic wars. France did pay European claims, but refused to pay the United States. President Andrew Jackson was livid, In 1834 ordered the U.S. Navy to stand by and asked Congress for legislation. Jackson's political opponents blocked any legislation. France was annoyed but finally voted the money if the United States apologized. Jackson refused to apologize, and diplomatic relations were broken off until in December 1835 Jackson did offer some friendlier words. The British mediated, France paid the money, and cordial relations were resumed.

Suffice it to say that America's suspension of payment on it's loans and failure to recognize loans was a cause of the quasi war which France fought just after the Revolution. To put France's financial commitment to the colonial cause into perspective we can remember that France's military commitment to the war was global and that it basically bankrupted the French Economy and was a major factor in causing the French Revolution.

Financial Costs of the American Revolutionary War
The debt caused major economic and political problems for France, and, as the country struggled to pay its debts, eventually led to the Financial Crisis of 178625 and the French Revolution in 1789.

And more than 100 years of governmental debates and discussions.

Sources:

  • As with most of these 18th Century colonial wars, a large slice (maybe the majority) of the engagements between the European powers were naval, in the Carribean. That's where the money was. – Spencer Sep 2 at 17:04
  • @Spencer, Most people don't realize that the American Revoution was just one theatre of the much larger Anglo-French war of 1778 involving France, Britain and Spain with Austria on the periphery. Fought in the English Channel, The East and West Indies, Gibraltar, the Antilles, the Cape Verde Islands and North America. – JMS Sep 2 at 17:43

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