America Was Once the Country Begging Richer Allies for Help

Even before they declared their independence, it was clear to the American colonies that in their struggle against Great Britain they would need a wealthy benefactor. The colonies were desperately short of men, money and materiel. There was little by way of an American Navy, and barely an engineer on the continent. In 1776, the most gifted orator in Congress called for a declaration not by choice but by necessity, “as the only means by which foreign alliance can be obtained.” In that light, our founding document nearly qualifies as an SOS.

It was no secret to Congress that France secretly favored the American experiment. With General George Washington’s army down to a handful of rounds of powder per man, all eyes turned to Benjamin Franklin. No one had more experience with the world beyond American shores. Already Franklin had crossed the ocean six times. He was dimly understood to speak French. He sat on the secret committee that had dispatched an earlier envoy to Paris.

The unanimous choice on one side of the ocean, he was the ideal choice on the other. Celebrated across Europe as the tamer of lightning, Franklin met in Paris streets with cheering crowds and in theaters with thunderous ovations. His celebrity assisted little with his clandestine mission, however. The French government could not openly receive him without provoking their powerful rival, Great Britain.

Eager though he was to shrink the British sphere of influence, the French foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, was unimpressed by the Americans. He doubted their resolve for the task at hand, a fear on which the British ambassador in Paris played, advertising the colonists as a cowardly band of thieves and muggers. Vergennes was less impressed still by General Washington. He seemed to proceed from defeat to defeat.

In America, too, there remained varying degrees of discomfort with the idea of a foreign partner. John Jay hoped to win the war without French involvement of any kind. John Adams hoped to win the war without French funding. Washington hoped to win the war without French troops. Franklin hoped to win the war.

Though he knew the situation to be dire, he waged in Paris a war of disinformation. The farther the British penetrated the continent, Franklin crowed, the more resistance they would meet. He boasted that Washington would soon command a force of 80,000 expertly trained men.

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