At nine o’clock on the morning of May 6, 1778, Continental soldiers at Valley Forge emerged from their huts to hear their regimental chaplains announce the American alliance with France. This was followed by the troops forming in ranks for a review by General George Washington, the firing of muskets by Washington’s guard, a thirteen-gun artillery salute, a feu de joie fired by the whole army, and shouts of “huzza” and “Long live the King of France.” This enthusiastic celebration of the new relationship with the French marked a complete reversal of American opinion: just fifteen years earlier, France had been a hated enemy. Loyalists were quick to seize upon this evident hypocrisy and use the alliance to validate their own allegiance to Britain while attempting to rekindle anti-French sentiment to undermine the revolutionary movement. Foremost in this effort was Charles Inglis in New York City, who in a series of essays compiled in the pamphlet The Letters of Papinian, used a host of arguments to persuade the revolutionaries that the alliance would prove disastrous. His work, however, had little impact, in part because his writings did not circulate widely outside British-controlled areas and also because most Americans were by then firmly committed to the cause of independence and willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve that goal.
Animosity toward France had been a hallmark of colonial identity for more than a century before the Revolution began. Hostility toward Britain’s longtime enemy increased during the several colonial wars, reaching a peak in the period from 1744 to 1763 when the British and colonists engaged in two wars with France: King George’s War, 1744-1748, and the French and Indian War, 1754-1763. Historian Nathan O. Hatch observed that “the conflict with France gripped New England society with an overriding intensity.” To the colonists, New France posed more than a military threat; a French victory would, they believed, destroy their “religion and liberties.” In contrast to Britain, with its safeguards for liberty and the Protestant religion, France was seen as an absolutist state where the people had no political rights under a tyrannical king, whose “Romish Antichristian” government also acted as an agent for promoting the false, even Satanic doctrines of Roman Catholicism with the goal “to subjugate God’s elect.”
During the French and Indian War, “fighting the French became the cause of God” in New England. As the Reverend James Cogswell proclaimed when preaching to New England troops in 1757: “Fight for Liberty and against Slavery. Endeavour to stand the Guardians of the Religion and Liberties of America; to oppose Antichrist.” Such views were not confined to New England. Similar sentiments were held by people throughout Britain’s North American colonies. During the French and Indian War, “fighting the French became the cause of God.”
The Anglo-American victory over France and the expulsion of the French from the North American mainland was cause for colonial celebration, but distrust of the French and their Roman Catholic faith did not vanish. When Parliament passed the Quebec Act in 1774, the colonists considered it part of the Coercive Acts intended to punish Massachusetts for the “Tea Party,” although the law was an entirely separate measure intended to reconcile French Canadians to the British regime by making accommodations for their political and religious institutions. American colonists feared that the lack of an elected legislature in Quebec and toleration of the Roman Catholic Church in the province represented the “popish” absolutism they had long detested.
Given the prevalence of anti-French and anti-Catholic sentiment in the colonies, American leaders’ courting of France, and even French Canadians, from the early days of the Revolution represented a complete shift in opinion by Congress. This policy, confirmed by the subsequent Franco-American alliance, could not help but confuse and perhaps anger some colonists whose hatred of France had become instilled in childhood. While revolutionary leaders might justify the change of attitude as necessary for the achievement of independence, not all Americans agreed, and for Loyalists in particular, the alliance proved that they had made the right decision in maintaining their allegiance to Britain, while the revolutionaries had thrown themselves into the arms of absolutist France where their cherished liberties and Protestant religion would soon be smothered.
One of the most prominent Loyalists to articulate these ideas, in part hoping to convince at least some Americans to return to the British fold, was Reverend Inglis. Born in Ireland in 1734, Inglis came to America in the early 1750s and settled in Pennsylvania, where he taught at an Anglican school in Lancaster. In 1758 he returned to England to be ordained, and upon his return he served in Dover, Delaware, under the auspices of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. He was appointed a minister at New York’s Trinity Church in 1766, where he supported the controversial proposal to appoint an Anglican bishop for the American colonies. He backed the British government in its disputes with the colonies throughout the 1760s and early 1770s; in 1776, he argued against independence in The True Interest of America Impartially Stated, a reply to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Inglis endured harassment until the British army occupied New York later that year, and he continued to advocate for Loyalism until the city was evacuated in 1783, whereupon he settled in Nova Scotia.
Inglis’s attack on the Franco-American alliance was undertaken in a series of newspaper essays later combined into a pamphlet, The Letters of Papinian: In Which the Conduct, Present State and Prospects, of the American Congress, Are Examined. Published in 1779, the nine essays, most signed with the pseudonym “Papinian” (a Roman judge and legal scholar), originated as a response to Congress’s imprisonment of a British naval officer. Thus the first three “letters” were addressed to Henry Laurens, then president of the Continental Congress, the fourth, sixth, seventh, and eighth to Laurens’s successor John Jay, and the fifth and ninth letters to the “People of North America.” Over their course, the letters expanded from their initial focus on the captured officer to include criticism of Congress’s refusal to honor the Saratoga Convention and return the prisoners to Britain as the agreement had specified, as well as into a lengthy critique of the alliance with France and the grave threat it posed to the revolutionaries.
The incident that caused Inglis to begin writing was the capture and imprisonment of Royal Navy lieutenant Christopher Hele and his crew. In early October 1778, Hele left New York aboard the sloop Hotham carrying a final message to Congress from the Carlisle Peace Commission, which had attempted for months to negotiate an end to the war and return the colonies to the imperial fold. While sailing up the Delaware River, the Hotham was wrecked and Hele and his crew spent three days aboard the partly submerged vessel before they were seized by the revolutionaries. Two sailors died before the crew was captured, “and those who escaped with life, were confined by order of Congress in a miserable dungeon in Philadelphia.” Because the British vessel was sailing under a flag of truce, the British Commissary for Navy Prisoners, James Dick, wrote to Congress on October 27 demanding the release of Hele and his crew. However, John Beatty, Commissary-General of Prisoners for Congress, refused in a reply of November 14. He cited an act of Congress exempting anyone carrying “seditious papers” from the protection of a flag of truce. His assertion was dubious, since the act had been passed on October 16, at least a week after the crew was captured, and it was something of a stretch to claim that a message to Congress from British peace commissioners should be considered “seditious.”
After focusing his attention on this issue and other examples of Congress’s duplicity in his first three letters, Inglis turned his attention to France in the fourth essay. He blamed the influence of the French minister to the United States, Conrad-Alexandre Gerard, for Congress’s rejection of the generous terms offered by the Carlisle Commission. “Mr. Gerard well knew,” Inglis asserted, that permitting the Americans to reach an accommodation with Britain “was never the design or purpose of the French king.” This was not surprising, in Inglis’s opinion, because “for two centuries past, France hath been the common incendiary of Europe – the plague of every neighbouring state, by interfering and embroiling in their affairs, to serve her own ambitious purposes. She is now playing the same game in America that she has played a thousand times before in Europe.” Inglis claimed that Congress had dithered in its dealings with the British commissioners until Gerard “at last bullied you into a compliance” with his wishes.
Inglis reminded his readers of “the fury” of France’s “Popish bigotry,” mentioning the 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes that had granted toleration to French Protestants, alleging that this had been followed by the execution or banishment of “not less than a million” Protestants while others were “stript of all their property.” In following Gerard’s instructions, Inglis declared, members of Congress were “offering incense to, and throwing yourselves at the feet of, that insidious crown which has extinguished liberty, and extirpated the protestant religion in all its territories.” Such behavior was disgraceful; worse, “its consequences are more serious and fatal to the American colonists,” for Congress had placed them “in a state of vassalage to France.”
Next, Inglis remarked that Congress’s acceptance of the French alliance was “a sure indication of weakness in you, however it may enable France to exert her strength.” He cited the difficulties the revolutionaries faced in recruiting troops, shortages of military supplies, the nearly worthless Continental currency, and the large war debt the United States had accumulated. The result of these problems had been the solicitation of an “inglorious alliance with France, by which you lie at the mercy of that perfidious power.” The longer the war continued, the worse America’s problems would become, Inglis predicted, and dependence on France would grow. Eventually, the French would demand territory when Congress could not pay its debts to France, so that “the French King must in the end, according to your blessed schemes, be Lord Paramount and Proprietor of North-America. So that every American who is fighting against Britain,” Inglis wrote, “may have the pleasure to reflect, that . . . he is extending the empire and glory of the grand Monarque.”
In his fifth letter, addressed “To the People of North-America,” Inglis substituted the pseudonym “Clarendon” for “Papinian.” The purpose of the change was to send a message to Americans who were familiar with the history of the English Civil War. Edward Hyde, Lord Clarendon, had originally supported Parliament in its revolt against King Charles I, but had switched sides and become a Royalist when he decided that Parliament had become too radical. Inglis wanted readers to know that there was a precedent, in the actions of an admired historical figure, for shifting one’s allegiance. Inglis advised Americans that they had no opportunity “to avoid the yoke of despotism now, and probably the shackles of Popish superstition, and counting beads, unless you open your eyes, think and act for yourselves as free-men.” He restated his claim that Congress “had so entangled themselves with France, had MORTGAGED these Colonies so deeply to that insidious power,” that they had rejected Britain’s generous peace terms. Furthermore, “the Congress have so entwined themselves with France, that were even the British power set aside, they could not break loose from the former. If not dependent on Britain, the Colonies must be dependant on France; and were the Congress now to declare LOUIS XVI, sovereign and liege Lord of North-America, it would not shock or surprize me.” France, insisted Inglis, was now actually an obstacle to American independence.
In his seventh essay, addressed to John Jay, Inglis estimated the human and economic cost of the rebellion. “Now, for what has all this profuse waste of blood and treasure been made?” Inglis asked. He then provided the answer: “For the sake of a nominal independency, which established, would be more destructive to this continent, for ages to come, than even the present rebellion has been! For the sake of a ruinous alliance with France, the enemy of liberty and protestantism.” Furthermore, Inglis remarked, neither the French nor the Americans had benefited from their collaboration. He pointed to “the disgraceful, wretched state of France.” That nation had accomplished nothing in North America other than to send a fleet that, “after hovering a few months on this coast, without doing any thing,” had sailed to the West Indies, where it had been “blocked up” at Martinique by the Royal Navy. Inglis went on to list other disasters that had befallen France since its entry into the war. “The French West-India trade is nearly ruined. The French fisheries at Newfoundland are annihilated – Pondicherry, the only place of consequence which France possessed in the East-Indies, is wrested from her, and her East-India company and trade totally ruined.” Both the French merchant fleet and navy in Europe were confined to port by British naval blockade, driving French merchants into bankruptcy and leaving the government “without credit at home or abroad, and covered with indelible infamy, A just reward this of her perfidy!” Inglis implied that an ally that could not protect its own national interests would not be able to accomplish much on behalf of the American revolutionaries.
The eighth letter, also addressed to Jay, accused Congress of corruption. “Some do not hesitate to aver that the Congress have been tampering with French gold,” Inglis wrote without identifying the sources of the allegation. “Nothing else can account for their adherence to France, contrary to every dictate of reason and duty – every principle of protestantism and good policy, and to the manifest interest of America,” he asserted. Turning yet again to the heavy debt Congress had incurred and the high taxes that would be required just to pay for current expenses, he wrote that Congress had attempted to downplay its financial difficulties, assuring Americans that “the conduct of one Monarch, the Friend and protector of the rights of mankind, has turned the scale so much” that victory was certain and any problems could be resolved after securing independence. “Considering the mischiefs you have brought on France,” Inglis chided, “it is a pity to quarrel with you for affording her some kind and gracious words, since you can give her no more.”
Inglis followed by reiterating several points he had made in previous essays. He again noted the hypocrisy of Congress’s claim to be leading the battle for liberty and the creation of a republic while attaching the United States to a despotic and “faithless” monarchy. He repeated that France had not been able to protect its own overseas trade or colonies, and that the country was suffering from such financial distress that no funds were left to support the Americans; in fact, the “King’s palaces and gardens are going to ruins for want of money to repair them.” Meanwhile, “Agents of France are soliciting loans” across Europe, with little to show for their efforts. Inglis declared that France did not form an alliance with the United States “from affection to you or to the rights of mankind, but to serve her own ambitious purposes.” The French king’s ultimate goal was to add America to his dominions, just as his predecessors had expanded their boundaries in Europe. “By duplicity, intrigue, perfidy and violence, France has gained more provinces in Europe than you had to bestow in America,” Inglis observed, mentioning Burgundy, Alsace, and Corsica as examples, and adding that “she gained them without half a claim so plausible as you have given her to the Thirteen United States.”
Inglis drew on this material once more in his final essay, addressed to “The People of North-America.” By this point his arguments had become repetitious. The French alliance endangered “the liberties of America” and Protestantism. The only new elements in the ninth letter were an expansion on the religious threat from France, with Inglis warning that the United States would soon be swarming with Catholic priests, rosaries, and other “Popish” religious items. A second fresh argument was that the clause in the treaty of alliance prohibiting either nation from making a separate peace with Britain would result in Americans fighting and dying until France achieved its war aims.
The opinions that Inglis espoused were shared by other Loyalists. An anonymous writer using the pseudonym “Britannicus” addressed an essay “To the Inhabitants of the Revolted Colonies in America” in April 1779 that used a somewhat different approach to denounce the French alliance. For several years, the writer stated, Americans had been “grossly deceived by the false, though confident assertions of your Congress,” yet the revolutionaries’ situation had steadily worsened. Now, “Britannicus” stated, Congress claimed that French aid would bring independence, but the alliance had not brought success. Instead, the French forces sent to America and their leader, the Comte d’Estaing, had “failed in every particular.” Joint Franco-American operations in Rhode Island the previous year had ended in a fiasco, and d’Estaing “threw the whole blame of his failure upon the Americans” for not adequately supporting him. The comte had gone to the West Indies, where he was held in check by the British navy. “Britannicus” asked whether the king of France would incur the expense of sending additional forces given the large debts owed to his country by the United States, which had nothing to offer except its trade. The alliance was a poor arrangement for both sides, serving only to entangle Americans in “a connection with the most perfidious nation on earth.” If France somehow did manage to triumph, the writer warned, “you may expect that she will send a fleet and army to take possession of this country for her own emolument.”
Another loyalist writer, calling himself “Refugee,” expressed his objections to the Franco-American alliance more concisely. He wrote in the Royal American Gazette that Congress’s purposes in entering the alliance were “dethroning the king and treading under foot the British constitution and power in America, as well as introducing popery and republicanism, or an humble dependence (a slavish one) on France.”
A year after Inglis composed the “Papinian” essays, John Joachim Zubly, a Swiss-born Georgia Loyalist who had been ordained a minister in the German Reformed Church before moving to America in the mid-1740s, put forward his own criticism of the alliance. Writing as “Helvetius,” Zubly published seven essays in Savannah’s Royal Georgia Gazette. In the second, he echoed Inglis’s claim that Congress had thrown Americans “into the arms of a power the most remarkable for despotism and oppression of any in Europe” and examined at greater length the story of how Corsica’s fight, with French support, for independence from Genoa instead resulted in the French making “a conquest of [Corsica] for themselves.” Zubly briefly denounced France in his fifth essay and did so at greater length in the sixth in language similar to that employed by Inglis. France was an “arbitrary perfidious power,” some revolutionary leaders had “sold their country and dupes” to the French, and the deceived Americans would soon find themselves controlled by France, or perhaps even the Pope. Congress had “mortgaged” the United States to France and had no means to escape from that dangerous nation’s clutches. A catalog of evils, duly described by Zubly, was certain to ensue.
Undoubtedly some Americans shared these views. Perhaps the most notable was Benedict Arnold, who insisted that the alliance with France was inconsistent with Revolutionary principles and a major part of the reason he shifted his allegiance to Britain. He published an open letter “To the Inhabitants of America” in the New York Loyalist newspapers in October 1780 explaining his decision. Contrasting Congress’s refusal to negotiate seriously with the Carlisle Commission with its embrace of France, Arnold termed these actions “a dangerous sacrifice of the great interests of this country to the partial views of a proud, antient and crafty foe.” Like “Britannicus,” Arnold insisted that France was unlikely to be able to defeat Britain: Americans had been “duped” to make them “serve a nation wanting both the will and the power to protect us and aiming at the destruction both of the mother country and the provinces.” Arnold also raised a new objection: because the Articles of Confederation had not yet been officially adopted, Congress lacked the authority to enter into foreign alliances, and the people themselves had never granted that body such a power. Under these circumstances, Arnold wrote, Americans would be wise to support Great Britain rather “than to trust a monarchy too feeble to establish your independency, so perilous to its own dominions; the enemy of the Protestant Faith, and fraudulently avowing an affection for the liberties of mankind, while she holds her native sons in vassalage and chains.” In his subsequent proclamation urging officers and soldiers of the Continental Army to enlist in the British forces, Arnold appealed to those “who are determined to be no longer the tools and dupes of Congress, and of France.” The former had “brought the colonies to the very brink of destruction,” and as for France, he testified that he had personally witnessed members of Congress attending Roman Catholic Mass, “participating in the rites of a Church, against whose anti-christian corruptions your pious ancestors would have witnessed with their blood.”In Arnold’s case, every statement cannot be taken at face value, although his hostility toward Catholicism was probably genuine.
The arguments laid out by Inglis and other Loyalists were potentially effective, tapping into longstanding animosity toward France and its Roman Catholic religion at a time when many Americans were weary of war and struggling with the consequent economic dislocations. However, the years of war had also fueled antipathy toward Britain and increased the desire of most Americans to achieve independence. Nevertheless, with widespread circulation The Letters of Papinian and similar writings may have convinced some wavering Americans to return to the British fold. Appeals to Protestant solidarity against “popery” might have helped win the allegiance of the numerous Presbyterians and other Dissenters in the South after British control was established in Georgia and South Carolina in 1780, but no organized effort to capitalize on anti-French sentiment was made in the South, and the “Papinian” essays do not appear to have been reprinted in the southern Loyalist press, leaving Zubly as a solitary voice crying in the wilderness. In the North, Loyalist pamphlets and newspapers did not circulate widely outside British lines, and anyone who attempted to distribute them risked the same punishment for carrying “seditious papers” that had caused Lieutenant Hele’s imprisonment and inspired Inglis to begin writing his essays. Therefore Inglis and other critics of the Franco-American alliance were able to preach primarily to those already converted, and the British derived little benefit from a potentially valuable source of propaganda.
John Joachim Zubly, “Helvetius” Essays, No. 2, No. 5, and No. 6, in Randall M. Miller, ed., “A Warm & Zealous Spirit”: John J. Zubly and the American Revolution, a Selection of His Writings (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1982), 179, 180, 190, 192-193.