Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Reflections on the Revolution

[Louis XVI making his final appearance on the French stage, with Robespierre in a supporting role]

Along the way I have been sometimes listening to books-on-CD. One of them was volume one of a two volume biography of John Adams. Adams had been, along with Franklin, part of the commission to Paris to get French aid for the Revolution.

At a time when Washington's army was being driven from the field by the redcoats for lack of gunpowder, Louis XVI sent 60 tons. It saved the Continental Army, and the Revolution, from certain destruction. This is never mentioned in conventional histories of the Revolution.

Adams pleaded for, and got, French naval support to keep the British armies separated and unable to be re-supplied. This too was instrumental in the war. It was why the British army attempted to march overland from Canada to New York rather than going by ship. In the course of which they were defeated at Ticonderoga. Not in our textbooks.

Louis le bien-ame, did more. He sent a field army commanded by le comte de Rochambeau to join Washington and the Continental Army. In the final and decisive battle of the war, at Yorktown, there were 8,000 soldiers of the Continental Army under Washington and 7,000 French regulars under Rochambeau, and 2,500 militia. Opposing them were 8,000 British soldiers under Cornwallis.

Cornwallis' army was unable to escape or get reinforcements because a French squadron commanded by Admiral de Grasse had defeated a smaller British fleet under Graves and blockaded the coast.

Cornwallis, outnumbered and trapped, surrendered to both Washington and Rochambeau. Very much not in our textbooks and complete news to me, who consider myself historically well-informed.

One can well imagine that the legend of Lafayette has been magnified in proportion as the fact of Rochambeau has been deliberately forgotten. Young Lafayette brought himself and a handful of adventurers to America. He served as an officer of American soldiers and led the expedition that was defeated in Canada. That was a grand gesture.

The comte de Rochambeau had 40 years of military experience when he arrived. In addition to giving Washington excellent advice, he brought an army, at least as well trained and equipped as the Americans and certainly better-paid, and a fleet at his back. That was considerably more than a gesture.

It is deliberate forgetting and misrepresentation for us to remember Lafayette and not Rochambeau. That we remember and teach our children about Lafayette and not Rochambeau is to make an empty pretense of gratitude to France for our independence. It is a falsification of our history. French aid was not a gesture.

Seen thus, the American Revolution and republic were as much a product of French intervention as of American resistance. Which puts a very different cast on the origins of the Republic and thus of its nature. Seeing our republic as merely an artifact of the clash of foreign empires makes it considerably less edifying than the more familiar narrative.

One can wonder about the wisdom of a hereditary absolute monarch aiding a republican revolution. The popularization of republican ideas and ideals in France by the American Revolution did not in a specific sense cause the French Revolution. Louis himself did that - by his unwillingness or inability to impose and collect taxes on the wealthy.

But once the Estates-General met, it was the ideas and ideals popularized by the American Revolution that made it a runaway horse that could not be stopped or even restrained. In a very real sense it was Louis' aid to American revolutionaries in 1775 that put his neck in the guillotine of French revolutionaries eighteen years later.


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