Today in 1778: The U.S. enters a formal alliance with France

February 6, 2015

Today in Legal HistoryLast month, President Obama was the subject of criticism for failing to attend a unity march in Paris after the deadly attacks by Islamic extremists earlier that month.

Although at least one high-ranking representative of the U.S. was expected to attend, since virtually every other Western nation was similarly represented, the U.S. has an especially unique relationship with France that creates an almost special obligation to show support.

After all, France is America’s oldest ally, and it is because of this early alliance that our fledgling nation was able to prevail in the Revolutionary War.

And this alliance was legally forged 237 years ago today, with the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance on February 6, 1778.  The Treaty of Amity and Commerce created a commercial alliance between the U.S. and France, while the Treaty of Alliance established a military partnership against the two nations’ mutual enemy, Great Britain.

Although the two treaties are separate legal documents, they collectively represent the joining of the two nations in a close strategic partnership that helped shape this nation into what it is today.

As mentioned above, these treaties were vital to the colonies’ victory in the Revolutionary War, and they were signed in the midst of this conflict.  More specifically, the signing of these treaties marked a turning point in the war.

France, being a long-time enemy of Britain, was a prominent consideration as an ally by high-ranking statesmen while independence was being contemplated by the American Continental Congress.  Even though France was initially receptive to the idea of an alliance, it became less eager after independence was declared and the colonies suffered some significant losses, instead focusing on an alliance with Spain.

However, after some lobbying efforts, in particular those of Benjamin Franklin, King Louis XVI gave official approval to begin negotiations for a formal alliance, which played a major role in the colonies refusal of a British proposal for reconciliation in January 1778.

The two treaties directly resulted in turning the tide of the war in favor of the colonies: once France announced that it recognized the sovereignty of the United States (through provisions in the treaties), Britain declared war on France.  Once France was involved, the colonies received vital military support and supplies, Britain was forced to spread its military over ever-increasing areas to defend against incursions – especially after Spain entered the war on the side of the French in April 1779 and the Dutch Republic followed in December 1780.

France’s support was critical during the Siege of Yorktown, the battle that ended with General Charles Cornwallis’s surrender, thereby ending hostilities on the North American continent in the U.S.’s favor.

By the end of the war, France had spent what would today be over 13 billion U.S. dollars in direct support to the colonies – and that’s not including France’s expenditures on its own military forces.  Although France made only limited gains as a result of the war, it was certainly a moral victory for the nation against Britain, the world’s then-superpower that had handed France a humiliating defeat in the Seven Years’ War some twenty years earlier.

Sadly, Franco-American relations deteriorated after the foundation of the U.S. republic, during the French Revolutionary Wars – which, incidentally, were spurred partly by the massive amount of debt incurred during the American Revolution.  The end of the 18th Century saw a period of increased hostilities between the two powers, and the Treaty of Alliance was officially dissolved with the Convention of 1800.

Although the two nations wouldn’t again join in a formal alliance until the NATO pact in 1949, the two nations enjoyed periods of goodwill (though also some times of animosity) in the intervening years.

And despite any quarrels between our two nations that may arise in the future, the fact remains that France’s support was essential to the victory in the American Revolution that allowed the U.S. to become the sovereign nation it is today.