Most important diplomatic action of the war? Why?
The most important diplomatic action of the war was signing the treaty of alliance with France. Without it America would have collapsed in 1778 or 79. The treaty created a whole new war.
The most important was Benjamin Franklin’s successful scheme that brought the French officially into the war, the consequences of which could fill a very thick history. For example, it removed from office the one last man who could have saved France from the French Revolution because he protested the cost too much. It also politically isolated Britain from the rest of Europe and gave George III more war than he could afford, even when the Brits were winning.
My nominee for second place is elderly Richard Oswald, one of the wealthiest and most respected men in Britain, sent to France by King George III to approach Benjamin Franklin about ending the war. The result would be the Treaty of Paris, signed in Oswald’s Paris apartment. In 1775, Oswald had anonymously published the book American Husbandry as a plea for Britain negotiate to keep the colonies in the Empire.
Old Ben Franklin lured the French into openly supporting the American rebels.
Britain’s failure to secure a Continental ally to offset French support for the Americans. In previous wars, Britain could always count on the support of one or more European nations to keep France busy at home. Prussia played this role in the Seven Years’ War, and Austria before that. Without a European ally of Britain to occupy the French army on the Continent, France was free to focus its attention against Britain, and we all know the result.
Negotiation of the Treaty of Alliance with France. This treaty not only provided the Patriots with arms, supplies, money, ships and soldiers, it also forced Britain to sharply curtail the resources she devoted to suppression of the the American rebellion as she had to devote massive resources to the defense of her other worldwide holdings. Without the direct material support from France, and even more importantly, the diversion of British resources from the American theater that resulted from the treaty, it is unlikely that our revolution would have succeeded.
I think this is a “no-brainer” : the successful effort to attach France to the American cause. Yet this was not at all an obvious move for the French at the time. There were abundant reasons to stay out of the American war. First, political considerations: the American movement was the most radical in history at that time: not merely calling for independence, the writings of Jefferson and Paine (among others) were a direct attack on the legitimacy of all monarchies. That gave King Louis pause. In modern terms, supporting the Americans would have been like the US (or Britain) supporting the Bolsheviks in Russia (or the Taliban to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan . . .). Eventually, it came down to “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Lafayette’s liberalism notwithstanding, France helped the Americans out of hatred for Britain, and wound up paying a high price for it.
Second, military considerations. The last time the French had tangled with the British, it had not ended well: loss of North America and almost all of their Indian possessions. Were the army and navy up to a second round? It must have looked doubtful. And the Americans could hardly assist the French in fighting the British around the world. The “alliance” was pretty one-sided.
Third, financial considerations: France was already deeply in debt from the Seven Years War (the only thing worse than borrowing heavily to win a war, like Britain had done in 1763, is to borrow heavily and lose). To actively support the Americans meant, above all, money. And that, the French monarchy did not have. But it went forward, borrowed heavily (too heavily, as it turned out) and successfully prosecuted the American war militarily, but then collapsed in 1789, under a combination of financial crisis brought on by a tax revolt and a political upheaval brought on by the French people’s loss of respect for the ancien regime.
So, one could conclude by answering a previous question in the reply to this one: another “Greatest Consequence” of the American Revolution is that it directly triggered the French Revolution, which has in turn inspired every political and social upheaval since: from the 1848 revolutions in Europe to the Russian and Chinese revolutions, to the recent “Arab Spring.” Little credit is given to us, these days, but our successful independence movement kicked all of this off. So the diplomatic achievement of persuading France to intervene in the American Revolutionary struggle is another turning point of global proportions.
The diplomatic alliance with the French in 1778 must appear at the top of any such list. Envisioning an American victory without this improbable accord is not easy. Moreover, and importantly, this agreement forever changed the perception of monarchy.
The abortive Staten Island peace conference attempting to reconcile differences between the British government and the patriots during the British invasion of New York City doomed the participants to wage a long and costly conflict. Several members of the Second Continental Congress met with Admiral Lord Richard Howe, a peace commissioner appointed by King George on September 11, 1776, in an effort to find a peaceful solution to the armed rebellion.
However, the British government limited Howe’s negotiating concessions to granting limited pardons (and not even to all the patriot peace commissioners) and the Americans held out for legal recognition of their independence. After 3 hours of fruitless negotiations, there was not common ground and the conference ended. Because of this diplomatic failure, the British conquest of New York City resumed, and it would be seven long and bloody years before a peace treaty would be finally concluded.
The greatest consequence of the American Revolution stemmed from Jefferson’s master stroke in the Declaration of Independence. His ringing declaration that “all men are created equal” and all possess the natural right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” has inspired generations hopeful of realizing the meaning of the American Revolution.
I would argue that the most important diplomatic action of the war (once France was in it) was Benjamin Franklin’s and John Laurens’s efforts in France and Holland to raise money and supplies for the campaign of 1781 – the campaign that culminated at Yorktown. After learning of Congress’s desperate need for new loans from France, Franklin, in a remarkable bit of diplomacy, obtained an outright gift of six million livres from Louis XVI. Washington’s aide-de-camp Laurens, sent to France by Congress as an envoy extraordinary, obtained a French guarantee of a ten million-livre loan from Holland. Laurens was able to bring back three ship loads of arms, ammunition, and uniforms. He also carried back two million livres in specie. The hard money enabled Washington to pay his troops on the march to Yorktown. Without these efforts of Franklin and Laurens, Washington and Rochambeau could not have won their victory at Yorktown.
The 1783 Peace of Paris put a formal close on the Revolution. These treaties quite literally marked the beginning of America. Official boundaries were drawn for England, France, Spain, the Netherlands, and the newly recognized sovereign country of the United States. The specific treaty between America and England (Treaty of Paris 1783) hammered out further details like fishing rights and the release of captured prisoners.
Pierre de Beaumarchais and Benjamin Franklin’s efforts to maintain low-level French support for the Continental cause until the Versailles government entered the war were very important.
But I’ll also put in a word for Samuel Kirkland’s work convincing the Oneida and Tuscarora nations to support the American side of the war while the Mohawks, Senecas, Onondagas, and Cayugas allied with the Crown. The resulting break-up of the Iroquois Confederacy was much harder to foresee than France seizing an opportunity when Britain was vulnerable. That development also had major consequences for all the peoples of North America.
The most important diplomatic action of the war was perhaps the Staten Island Peace Conference held on September 11, 1776 in the two-story rock home called Billop Manor on New York’s Staten Island. It was important because not only was it the last chance to peacefully end the “rebellion” without much more bloodshed, but on a wider note – the rift that was revealed during the three hour-long meeting was in itself symbolic of what the whole Revolutionary War was to be fought for. British Admiral Lord Richard Howe met with three members of the Continental Congress – John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Edward Rutledge to see if an agreement could be reached to end the conflict. The meeting failed largely because the delegates demanded that before any negotiation, Lord Howe must recognize American independence. Of course, Howe would and could not do that, so the two sides parted.
Obtaining the alliance with France in February 1778 by Franklin and others, since it led directly to France declaring war on Great Britain and sending fleets and troops to North America. One could argue that the American successes at Saratoga and other battles were the most important diplomatic actions of the war, since they instilled confidence in French leaders that the Americans and French together had a decent chance to defeat Great Britain.
On July 27, 1777, a Wynadot warrior named Le Loup led an advance party ahead of John Burgoyne’s army. Le Loup and his men killed a settler and his family and then ambushed a Continental patrol. On their way back to camp, the party stopped at Fort Edward where Jane McCrea waited for her fiancé to arrive with his Loyalist regiment. Two warriors fought over McCrea and one of them shot, scalped, and mutilated her. The angry Wynadot warrior inadvertently gave the Patriots a powerful, emotional reason to pull it together and fight at the battles of Saratoga. Horatio Gates used Jane McCrea’s murder to unite his feuding regiments and to encourage more men to join him. The Patriots outnumbered the British forces by 1,000 at the Battle of Freeman’s Farm (September 19, 1777) and by almost 6,000 at the Battle of Bemis Heights (October 7, 1777). The Patriots’ defeat of Burgoyne turned the tide of war in their favor.
The most important diplomatic action was probably the Congress’s decision to send Benjamin Franklin to Paris in 1776. What Franklin achieved in France in terms of securing fiscal and material support from Louis XVI was no small miracle. However, less attention is often paid to the fact that, aside from the stories about fur caps and his playing the role of the rustic republican for the French audience, Franklin was also responsible for projecting an image of America as a sovereign power to the rest of the European monarchies and nobility, which turned out to be crucially important during the peace negotiations.
The most important diplomatic action of the war was a lie. Or, rather a mountain of lies that turned into a landscape of deceit, ushered by the arch-fabulist of the American Revolution, Arthur Lee, and his playwriting French compatriot, Pierre Beaumarchais. Before a shot was fired, Lee fabricated the nature of the political troubles in America and then saw his main chance in gaining French support for armed opposition to the British government, in the name of independence, if not liberty. Working with and through Beaumarchais, Lee secured the initial tacit friendship of the Comte de Vergennes and, most important, the gunpowder that patriot forces desperately needed. Conveyed through dummy companies set up by Lee and Beaumarchais, and communicated to Benjamin Franklin and his Committee of Secret Correspondence through a French agent sent to Philadelphia, gunpowder and other supplies flowed to the rebels, in at least enough quantities to make up the vast majority of shots fired by patriot troops at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777–certainly the most important military action of the entire war. Most historians argue that battle secured French support and therefore eventual American victory when, in fact, that victory would not have been possible without the fictional ground laid by Lee with the French years earlier, when the ends of freedom justified whatever means necessary.
[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: Franklin's Reception at the Court of France, 1778. Source: Library of Congress]