The Three Documents that brought France into the War

In the spring of 1775, Arthur Lee, the American agent in London, attended a dinner party at the home of John Wilkes, an outspoken supporter of the rebellious American colonies. There Lee met Monsieur de Beaumarchais, the famous French playwright, satirist, and financier who had the ear of King Louis XV and now had the ear of King Louis XVI. Like Wilkes, Lee was not reticent in his espousal of the American cause. It is highly likely that at some point in the evening Lee spoke with Beaumarchais and in the course of their conversation Beaumarchais learned of the problems America faced in her struggle for independence. There is no evidence of the nature of their conversation, or if there even was one, but before the week was out, Beaumarchais wrote to Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes, the Foreign Minister for France about what he had learned at the party.[1]

This was the beginning of Beaumarchais’ long-standing correspondence with Vergennes; his finest letter, written on February 29, 1776, was addressed La Paix ou la Guerre – Au Roi seul – “Peace or War – To the King alone.” In it Beaumarchais laid out a convincing argument for offering aid:

“The famous quarrel between America and England will soon divide the world and change the system of Europe …While a violent crisis is approaching with great rapidity, I am obliged to warn your Majesty that the preservation of our possessions in America, and the peace which your Majesty appears to desire so much, depend solely upon this one proposition: the Americans must be assisted … On the other hand, [Mr. Arthur Lee] a secret deputy from the colonies to London, quite discouraged by the inability of the efforts he has made, through me, with the French ministry, to obtain assistance in the shape of powder and munitions of war, says to me now: ‘For the last time, is France absolutely decided to refuse to us all assistance and to become the victim of England and the fable of Europe through this incredible apathy? Obliged to give a positive answer, I wait for your reply in order to give my own. We offer France, in return for her assistance, a secret treaty of commerce, which will transfer to her, for a certain number of years after the peace, all the advantages by which we have, for more than a century, enriched England, besides guaranteeing her possessions according to the forces at our disposal.”[2]

Vergennes did not pass the letter on to the King immediately. He was still trying to understand the mixed messages that the American Congress was sending Europe as to their intentions, i.e. the passage of the ‘Olive Branch’ petition and then the next day the passage of “The Declaration of the Causes and Necessities of Taking up Arms” proclamation. He also was apprehensive about Arthur Lee’s ties to the British government, Washington’s statement that the French were “our perfidious, false, and cruel enemies,”[3] Americans’ position regarding the return of France to Canada, his country’s unpreparedness for war if pushed to that point, and whether Spain, the second half of the House of Bourbon, would support France.

To help him determine on a course of action, he decided to send an agent to find out how the American leaders would respond to the offer of French aid. “I think it might be advantageous to us and it would at least satisfy the King’s curiosity, to have … a capable man who could judge the situation from the political and the military standpoint, could foresee the course of events, and send on his reports by each merchant ship.”[4]He consulted the Comte de Guines the French ambassador to the Court of St. James in England. De Guines recommended a young man who had just returned from America and had contacts in New York, Philadelphia, and Providence. His name was Julien Alexandre Achard de Bonvouloir. Within two weeks, the King approved of the venture and Vergennes approved Bonvouloir as the agent.[5]

Ambassador de Guines verbally gave Bonvouloir his instructions. They were explicit. He was not to represent himself as an official representative of France, he was to obtain as much information as possible about the state of American affairs and was to make no commitments. He was “to re-assure the Americans on the score of the dread which they are no doubt taught to feel of us. Canada is the point of jealousy for them; they must be made to understand that we have no thought at all about it, and that, so far from grudging them the liberty and independence they are laboring to secure, we admire, on the contrary, their grandeur and nobleness of their efforts; and that, having no interest in injuring them, we should see with pleasure such a happy conjunction of circumstances as would set them at liberty to frequent our ports. The facilities they would find for their commerce would soon prove to them all the esteem we feel for them.”[6] In September, Bonvouloir set sail for Philadelphia. His contact was Francis Daymon, a French-born merchant now living in Philadelphia. Daymon was a part-time librarian at Benjamin Franklin’s Library Company and was Franklin’s French tutor. Franklin set up a series of three meetings with the Continental Congress’s Committee of Secret Correspondence. The first meeting took place on December 18, 1775 and the final meetingon December 27.[7] Because Bonvouloir could not speak English, Daymon served as the translator. No one took minutes at any of the meetings and the only record of them is Bonvouloir’s report to Comte de Vergennes via Comte de Guines of December 28. Because of the secret nature of his trip, Bonvouloir’s report was contained in a general letter to the French ambassador:

“I have found this country in an inconceivable agitation … They besieged Montreal, which has capitulated and are actually before Quebec which I think will soon fall also. They have seized several of the King’s vessels filled with provisions or war and food. They are perfectly entrenched before Boston; they have built a small Navy; they have unbelievable spirit and good will … I made no offer to them, absolutely none, promising only to give them all the service I can without compromising myself, and without vouching for events in any fashion … I told them I thought France wished them well; if she would aid them that that might well be; on what terms I did not know … that I promise to present their requests without anything more … They asked me whether it would be prudent for them to send an empowered deputy to France. I told them I imagined this would be precipitous, even hazardous; that everything is known about London in France and about France in London, and that the step would singe the English beard …

Their affairs are in good state … I have just this instance learned that the savages of five nations have sent their chiefs to the general assembly, in order to assure them they wished to be neutral … They are convinced that they cannot sustain themselves without a    nation that protects them by sea; Everyone here is a soldier. The troops are well clothes, well paid andwell commanded. They have about 50,000 men hired and a greater number of volunteers who do not wish to be paid … They have said they are fighting to become free and that they will succeed at no matter what price, that they are linked bu oath and … know ell that they cannot maintain themselves at sea and that only France is in a condition to protect their commerce without which their country cannot flourish …”[8]

Bonvouloir‘s report reached Vergennes on February 27, 1776.

Clockwise from top left: John Wilkes (National Portrait Gallery, London), Beaumarchais (Comédie-Française), King Louis XVI (Palace of Versailles), Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes (Palace of Versailles)
Clockwise from top left: John Wilkes (National Portrait Gallery, London), Beaumarchais (Comédie-Française), King Louis XVI (Palace of Versailles), Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes (Palace of Versailles)

Vergennes, now more confident in the conclusions drawn by Beaumarchais in “Peace or War,” prepared a detailed State paper that he hoped would persuade the Principal Minister, the Controller General of Finances, the Minister of Marine and the Minister of War, key members of the King’s inner circle, of the efficacy of the plan. It was entitled Considerations. In it he recommended that France begin to build up its military, assure England of its peaceful intentions toward all nations, and secretly support the colonies’ resolve with arms and supplies. He was clear that the support would be extended but “without making a convention with them until their independence be established.” On March 12, with the approval of the four ministers and subsequently the entire Council, Vergennes presented his document and Beaumarchais’ address to the King. Because King Louis XVI opposed war as a general principle, he presented the action not as revenge, but rather for the glory of France and the future danger from a “grasping, ambitious, unjust, and perfidious enemy,” “even if his majesty’s interest lay in feeding the flame of rebellion in America, his feeling of justice would forbid him to do so; and justice is the strongest impulse of his soul.”[9] Bonvouloir’s letter, Beaumarchais’ “Peace or War” address, and the State paper written by Vergennes together persuaded the King to secretly send aid to the American colonies.

On April 12, Vergennes submitted to the King a detailed outline on how the plan would be executed: The royal treasury would provide Beaumarchais with one million livres to setup the House of Rodrigue Hortalez et Campagnie, a fictitious trading company;[10] he would use half of the money to buy obsolete or surplus French weapons, gunpowder, blankets, clothing, and ammunition and the other half would be lent to the American Congress. The first half of the money would quickly be returned to Treasury via the purchases and the second would be returned with interest at a later date. All future supplies would be paid for by filling the empty arms ships with tobacco, rice, indigo, cotton, and lumber. Some of the ships would sail directly for America, others for the French West Indies where the supplies would be transferred to smaller American ships. If England protested, France’s response would be that as a neutral nation, it had no power to prevent private merchants from conducting their business. The supplies would one day vanish from French arsenals and at some point in the future reappear in America with no money changing hands. He told the King that the “exchange of traffic could be made without the government appearing involved in any way.”[11]

During the month of April, Vergennes also wrote a memoir entitled Reflexions. In it he argued that if England kept control of her colonies she would be “able to prevent [them] from dealing with other nations, while accumulating all the benefits of exclusive trade with [them]. It is to prevent England from gaining this double advantage that makes it imperative for France to intervene in the current dispute … England is France’s natural enemy … her cherished, long-standing goal is, if not the destruction of France, at least our emasculation, humiliation and ruin … [If she loses her colonies] the power of England will diminish and ours will increase accordingly; English commerce will suffer an irreparable loss while ours will increase accordingly.”[12]It is not clear whether he presented any part of the argument to the King on April 12.

On May 2, 1776, the King authorized an appropriation of one million livres to be entrusted to Beaumarchais; he received the money in gold coin on June 10. This marked the beginning of France’s support of the rebellious English colonies in North America.


[1] “Count de Lauraguais to Count de Vergennes, 24 February1776,”AMAE, Correspondance Politique, Angleterre, Vol. 515, LC Photocopybearing the endorsement, “Delivered to the King 1 March 1776.”

Lauraguais was an observer in London. In his letter he wrote “…It was impossible in France to deny that the British Ministry saw the opportunity and realized that the only way to restore the power of England was to capture the Spanish and French islands, not only because they were the eternal objects of regrets on the part of England since the last peace, but rather because the immense progress of cultivation and population in America made it as impossible for the Americans to submit to the Navigation Act as for the British to repeal it or to hope they could convince or compel the Americans to return under the yoke … The agent of the Colonies [Arthur Lee] told me he had intended to go to Versailles four months ago in order to make the same proposals that Congress had then made to the Spanish court through an envoy … Having pressed him on the proposals he intended to present, he told me he could ask France for ammunition and give her the guarantee of a trade agreement between her and America for a period of 4 years following the peace. … He insisted on the advantage of taking away the American monopoly from England … I spoke of this to M. Beaumarchais and told him that I had met the American agent two days in a row at dinner.”

Baron Albert de Dorlodot of Suarlee, Belgium, believes that it was the Count de Lauraguais who first conferred with Arthur Lee, and should be credited with bringing the American question to the attention of the King.

[2] Louis De Lomenie, Beaumarchais and his Times (New York: Harper and

Brothers, 1857), 118-19; Henri Doniol, Histoire de la Participation de le France a

l’Etablissement des Etats-unis d’Amerique: Correspondence Diplomatique et

Documents, Vol. 1 (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1886), 402-07.

[3] “From George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie, 24 October 1757, A Rough

Sketch of a Speech to the Indians Octr 1757,”The Papers of George Washington,

Colonial Series, Vol. 5, 5 October 1757–3 September 1758, ed. W. W. Abbot

(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988), 25–28, fn. 4.

[4] Doniol, Histoire, 1:128.

[5] Doniol, Histoire, 1:155.

[6] Doniol, Histoire, 1:156-57; Frout de Fontpertuis, Adalbert. Les Estats-Unis del’Amerique septentrionale. Leurs origins, leur emancipation et leurs progress (Paris: Guillaumin et Cie, 1873), 297.


[8] Doniol, Histoire, 1: 287-292.

[9] Doniol, Histoire, 1:149

[10] Magazine of American History, Vol. II (1878), 663-672;

[11] De Lomenie, Beaumarchais and his Times, 273.

[12] B. F. Stevens, Facsimiles of Manuscripts in European Archives Relating to America, 1773-1783, No. 1310.


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