Republican House leaders, enraged that France refuses to back George W. Bush’s Iraq war, have decreed that from now on french fries served in Capitol Hill dining halls are “freedom fries.” France is denounced as an “ingrate” ignoring the role of U.S. troops as “liberators” of France in World War I and World War II. In fact, while staunchly opposing war on Iraq, the French people revere the Americans who stormed the beaches of Normandy to defeat Hitler fascism.
But little is said in Congress about the role of France in helping the Americans win the 1776-1781 War of Independence against British King George III. Consider that midway through the war, the Continental Army was bogged down, starving, freezing, unpaid, at Valley Forge, stalemated in a seemingly endless war against a numerically stronger and better equipped British army. Conditions were so atrocious that soldiers mutinied, demanding food, shelter, and pay. The Continental Congress was flat broke. France came to the rescue, providing over $9 million in financial assistance. The Encyclopedia of American History, edited by Richard B. Morris, Henry Steele Commager, and Jeffrey B. Morris, reports that “a timely subsidy from France … and French backing for a large loan from the Netherlands” pulled the rebellious colonists from the brink of bankruptcy.
French financial backing for the revolution actually began in 1775 when a five-member “Committee of Secret Correspondence” was appointed by the Continental Congress to visit France. In May 1776, two months before the Declaration of Independence, the French government set up a fictitious company, Roderigue Hortalez et Cie, which secretly delivered one million livres (French currency at the time) worth of French munitions to the Americans. Spain, too, agreed to supply arms and, according to the Encyclopedia, “From these sources the American armies were to receive over 80 percent of their gunpowder, to mention but one type of military supplies, throughout 1776-77.”
France and a delegation from the Continental Congress signed two treaties in 1778, the first establishing “most favored nation” status between the two nations, and the second creating a formal alliance to “maintain effectually the liberty, sovereignty, and independence” of the United States. It was an enormous diplomatic coup for the infant United States to be recognized by the strongest continental power in Europe.
A few months later, France declared war on England and deployed 15,000 troops to fight in America at a time when the Continental Army had only 32,899 soldiers. The British Army had 39,637 troops in the U.S., not counting thousands of Hessians. Thus French combat troops tipped the balance against the British Redcoats and their hired mercenaries.
French solidarity is legendary in American history. The Marquis de Lafayette was a trusted commander of American troops. When John Paul Jones and his crew sank the British man-of-war Serapis in the North Sea, it was in a ship with the very French name Bonhomme Richard, an old French merchantman outfitted with cannons in the port of L’Orient, France.
The decisive battle of the war was at Yorktown, Va., in which 7,800 French soldiers under Gen. Rochambeau joined forces with 9,000 American soldiers under Gen. George Washington to lay siege to 8,000 British troops dug into heavily fortified positions. The battle raged from Aug. 30 to Oct. 19, 1781. British Gen. Cornwallis’ hopes for reinforcement were dashed when the French fleet under Admiral Comte de Grasse imposed a blockade. Cornwallis surrendered Oct. 17, 1781. A total of 2,113 French soldiers died fighting for American independence together with 6,118 American soldiers who died in that same cause.
That victory over the “divine right of kings” had a profound influence on the French, who in 1789 waged their own war against the Bourbon tyranny. When the British monarchist Edmund Burke wrote his scurrilous Reflections on the Revolution in France, Thomas Paine, who stirred the American people to revolution with his Common Sense and Appeal to Reason, fired back with the eloquent Rights of Man, a radical rejection of titled aristocracy and unearned wealth and a defense of human equality.
Later, France doubled the territory of the United States when it sold all its colonial possessions west of the Mississippi to the U.S. for $15 million – the “Louisiana Purchase.” In 1886, the French people sent the Statue of Liberty to New York as a gift.
It’s useless to expect House Majority Leader, Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), a cockroach exterminator, to remember France’s solidarity or the real values of liberty and equality brought closer by the revolutions in the U.S. and France. He is a Tory who bends his knee to a would-be King George.
Tim Wheeler is Editor of the People’s Weekly World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org