The participation of the French on the side of the newly declared independent American colonies is widely acknowledged as the factor that tipped the balance in the American Revolution and ultimately led to the defeat of the British. This alliance, actually two alliances—one of commerce and one of military cooperation—was concluded in early 1778, but it was the result of many years of monitoring and assessment of the situation in British North America that commenced almost immediately after France’s stinging defeat in the Seven Years’ War. The alliance idea had to be sold to young King Louis XVI, and most of his inner circle supported it. I would like to tell you about the one who didn’t, and why he opposed it. Though he did not prevail, his reasons for opposing it add to the understanding of how the alliances came to be.
When all the intelligence reports, diplomatic maneuvering, etc. were complete, the decision boiled down to a final assessment made by the King Louis XVI (just twenty-three years old when the alliance was concluded) and his closest advisors. The most prominent supporter was the Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes. His thinking concerning the role of France in the war were first recorded for the King in late 1775, in a document called Reflections (actually written by Vergennes’s secretary Gerard de Rayneval). His stance is further crystalized in a second document, Considerations, penned in March 1776. However, one advisor remained unconvinced: His name was Anne-Robert Jacques Turgot, the Finance Minister. Turgot lost the battle, and the French and Americans eventually won the war. Given this outcome, was Turgot wrong in opposing the alliance?
I will summarize each scenario Vergennes imagined for the war in the colonies in Considerations, why he thought they necessitated French involvement, and how Turgot attempted to refute his arguments. Vergennes’ Reflections, meant for the King’s eyes only, enumerated three reasons for intervening—Diminishing Britain’s power while increasing France’s, diminishing Britain’s commercial advantages while increasing France’s, and regaining some of France’s North American possessions (though no mention of Canada). He further raised questions and proposed answers as to the type of assistance to be provided (money, supplies, and naval), the timing of that assistance, and the projected benefits. In Considerations, he outlined four possible scenarios for the outcome of the conflict and why France should intervene to achieve the goals outlined in Reflections. It is these scenarios that Turgot directly addressed.
As you can imagine, with Turgot’s role as Finance Minister, his objections contained a heavy dose of financial considerations, but his arguments were a little more nuanced than simply saying it would cost too much. It is difficult to speculate what would have happened had Turgot won the argument, but anti-British fervor in France was such that since there was a low probability of this happening.
There should be no mistake, however, that Turgot’s argument against involvement would ultimately rise or fall on financial considerations and their overall economic impact on France. He reportedly warned the King that “The first gunshot will drive the state to bankruptcy.” However, the non-monetary concerns of “International power politics and considerations of national prestige took precedence over domestic reform.” France’s inferiority complex coming out of the Seven Years’ War surfaced in Reflections and in Considerations, both of which dripped contempt for the British, calling her France’s “natural enemy . . . an enemy at once grasping, ambitious, unjust, and perfidious.” “Experience has shown,” claimed Vergennes, the British “regard as honorable at just everything which they consider beneficial to themselves and damaging to their rivals.”
Turgot was given the text of Considerations and wrote his point-by-point refutation entitled Reflections written on the occasion of a memoir given by de Vergennes to the King on how France and Spain should consider the aftermath of the quarrel between Great Britain and its colonies. Translated to English, his detailed argument, dated April 6, 1776, runs some 14,000 words.
Unfortunately for Turgot, he was not arguing from a position of strength. Besides fighting against the growing tide favoring support of the Americans, some his prior efforts to put the country’s financial house in order did not go over well with many influential people. He issued a number of unpopular edicts, the most (in)famous of which were his six edicts in 1776, to which the King assented, over strong opposition by the clergy and the nobility. The most controversial of the edicts were those suppressing forced unpaid labor and suppression of certain rules by which the craft guilds maintained their privileges. Turgot attempted to subject all three estates (Clergy, Nobility, all others) to taxation. Taxes on the clergy were soon lifted, but the to-be-expected hatred of his actions by the nobles and the parliaments was heaped upon him. Even the queen disliked him for opposing the grant of favors to her proteges. The edicts, combined with his losing stance on the Franco-American alliance, brought his career as Finance Minister to a swift close.
As mentioned, in Considerations Vergennes presented four points that in his opinion argued for French intervention. All four scenarios in his view “point with almost equal certainty to a war, more or less remote, with France and Spain.” In other words, the arguments were all crafted with the same end result, French involvement, in mind. Let us take them point-by-point:
1. Britain and the Colonies Reconcile—Perhaps Vergennes’s greatest fear, and the fear that had driven French policy up to that time, was that the British ministry “finding itself unable to continue, may hold out its hand toward a reconciliation” Indeed, there were rumors flying that Benjamin Franklin and the American delegation in France might be amenable to an accomodation, rumors Franklin did nothing to dispel and may have even fanned to keep the French engaged in alliance discussions. Reconciliation would create an even stronger British empire, maintaining the world balance of power that diminished France’s role. More than reconciliation itself, Vergennes feared that such an easy way out of the conflict would lead the British to set their sights on the French and Spanish possessions in the New World, “employ[ing] the forces it has [already] collected together [in America] in the too easy conquest offered by the West India Islands.” Spain was led by fellow Bourbon King Carlos III, and the two countries were linked by a defensive alliance called the Family Compact. Spain was an integral part of all Vergennes’ plans.
Timing was also an issue—a quick reconciliation would catch the French, still recovering fiscally and militarily from the Seven Years’ War, unprepared. By supporting the American revolt, first clandestinely and later openly, France could forestall the possibility of a reconciliation, especially a quick one.
Turgot’s Response: Though long on record as predicting American independence, Turgot acknowledged the possibility of reconciliation. He agreed it was the worst possible outcome for France, and assumed it would mean restoration of the colonies to their pre-Stamp Act position and rather than granting the colonies independence, a fear shared by some colonists. His main argument, though, had to do with the economic value, or really the lack thereof, of the sugar colonies. This theory was crucial to how he addressed the other points made by Vergennes; he wrote that “this discussion must therefore be the principal object of the third part of these reflections; it must conclude this Memoir.” I will do the same, and defer this discussion to later in this article. Turgot failed to address concerns about the balance of power, a non-financial consideration, probably because he thought reconciliation unlikely.
2. British Defeat of the American Colonies—Vergennes’s second scenario was that “the King of England, by conquering British America, may turn it into an instrument with which to subjugate European England.” England’s victory in the war would create a North American juggernaut which would not only threaten the mother country (it’s not clear to me why Vergennes thought this would be problematic for France), but also threaten France, Spain, and their possessions, among these being portions of Florida, Cuba, western Canada, the West Indies Sugar islands, and Louisiana. France’s, and hopefully Spain’s, presence on site would prevent Britain from exerting this leverage.
One aside: Vergennes posited a danger to the French and Spanish possessions whether the British reconciled, won, or lost. If they reconciled, the threat would come from a newly-powerful alliance in the vicinity (the first scenario). If they won (this scenario), their national arrogance and accusations of France and Spain providing assistance to the colonies would cause them to go after those countries’ sugar colonies. If they lost (the next scenario), they would need to lash out against the nearest targets, those islands, to placate the rage of their people and salvage some national pride.
These rhetorical gymnastics had two purposes. The “heads I win, tails you lose” nature of his arguments served to make war seem inevitable. As one historian observed “In the Considerations Vergennes was confronted with the task of demonstrating the superior urgency of his diplomatic program to that of Turgot’s program of financial retrenchment, and this task could only be performed by representing war with England as virtually inevitable.” It also would scare Spain into taking a much more active role by emphasizing the threat to Spain’s New World possessions, but at this point in the game, the Spanish would not take the bait. Eventually they would be involved because of their own possessions.
Turgot’s Response: This could never happen because conquering the colonies would be too difficult for Great Britain and could not be done without “the total ruin of the country,” rendering the British military unable to pursue such adventurism. Nor would the Americans, who “form the least corrupt part of the nation, and, at the same time, the least susceptible to the illusions which dazzle the vanity or greed of the people” be inclined to “drag England into enterprises beyond her strength.”
Further, the Americans, “enthusiastic for liberty, could be overwhelmed by force; but their will would not be tamed.” Thus, they could not truly be defeated. They could “sink and disperse themselves in the immense deserts that lie behind their settlements,” essentially resorting to a guerrilla war, beyond the capability of a European army to win. This anticipated the types of actions that thwarted Britain’s strategy in the southern colonies later in the war. Should Britain somehow win, he allowed, the mother country would be significantly weakened and vulnerable as a “national bankruptcy would break the present mainsprings of the British Government and deprive it of the greater part of its means of acting externally and of dominating internally.”
To keep the colonies under its thumb, Britain would need an excessive level of economic and military investment, which would create unrest at home as well as being financially unsustainable. Rather than increase the threat to France and Spain, it would result in “the absolute impotence of England to form any enterprise. If my view in this respect is correct, if the complete success of the views of the English Ministry is precisely what France and Spain could wish for most happily”, as it would actually decrease the threat to both of them.
3. The British are Defeated and Take Revenge—The British, should they be defeated in North America, would seek revenge and save “not only the heads of the ministers themselves, but even the person of the King, against the rage of the English people” by turning their sights on conquering French and Spanish possessions, particularly the sugar islands. Once these were conquered, they would seek conciliation with the Americans “to whom they would open the markets and secure the trade of the Islands.”  Presumably, a French and Spanish involvement in securing Britain’s defeat in the American Revolution, and their subsequent military presence in (formerly) British North America, would discourage Britain from pursuing such a course.
Turgot’s Response: First, although emotion might indeed stir a taste for revenge, he found such a scenario unlikely. “I confess that it seems difficult to me that the English Government, succumbing in its hostile plans against the settlers, succumbing, presumably, after painful and costly efforts which will have considerably weakened its means, should suddenly determine to multiply its enemies, and to form new enterprises.” Further, if the colonists had just defeated the British “It is highly doubtful that they would quietly let their enemies make conquests in their vicinity.” If the British government were to pursue such an action, it would only be after it had “made peace with its colonies and joined forces with its own, which is absolutely within the first supposition.”
In other words, it got back to his refutation of Vergennes’ first point, on the danger of a reconciliation between Britain and the colonies, i.e. that there was no other way they could pursue further conquests. This in turn was based on his argument about the lack of value of the colonies to their owners, a supposition he thought the American Revolution would make clear to the world. In one way or another, Vergennes’ case was based on fear—the fear of losing the French colonies and his attempts to lure Spain into the conflict over fear of losing its own possessions. This all came together in the fourth point.
4. America Wins Independence on its own; seeks to conquer French and Spanish holdings: “That the Colonies, once having become independent, and retaining no attachment to England, might become conquerors by necessity; because, being overstocked with their own products, they might seek by force an outlet in the sugar islands and in Spanish America, which would destroy the relations of our colonies to the central Government”. In other words, if the colonies secured their independence unaided, they might turn their sights on the French and Spanish sugar islands as conquests to serve as an outlet for their surplus of goods (food, timber, etc.). Winning with the French and Spanish as allies would avert this possibility.
Turgot’s Response: Turgot made two arguments. First, he questioned the American appetite for such conquest. Second, he entered into a long-winded and technical economic argument asserting that colonies in general provided little to no value to the home country. If this was true, it undermined any argument that Vergennes made that was based on threats to French and Spanish colonies coming either from the Americans or the British themselves, as pointed out in his refutation of the first scenario. Turgot saw these arguments as being based upon fear rather than rational considerations, and it is true that Vergennes attempted to exploit this fear to coax the Spanish into the alliance. Running through both of these was an early free trade argument as well as an explosion of the premise of the colonial model. To some extent, it was an argument ahead of its time. As would befit a Minister of Finance, Turgot’s argument against colonial ownership relied heavily on pecuniary considerations and was light on non-monetary factors such as strategic presence and national prestige.
As to the first point, he doubted the Americans would fall into the trap of becoming conquerors. “Much will depend on the consistency of the new constitution of government . . . it is possible, especially if the war is long, that the generals will take too much ascendancy for the glory which they will have acquired. It is possible that . . . they may try to perpetuate their power and prepare themselves from afar for a high fortune, by insinuating into their nascent republic a taste for conquest.” However, knowing the thinking of Franklin and the reputation of Washington, Turgot believed the Americans would avoid the trap that had entangled so many other revolutionaries: “It may, however, be anticipated from the prudence which seems to have hitherto presided over the conduct of the Americans, from the courage and enlightenment spread among them, and from their confidence in the wise advice of the famous Franklin, that they will have foreseen the trap, . . . that they will think above all of giving a solid form to their government, and that consequently they will love peace and will seek to preserve it.” 
Vergennes undercut his own argument in his earlier Reflections, acknowledging that “Republics rarely have the love of conquest” and America would be more interested in commerce than conquest, and thus it was in France’s interest for America to win. Furthermore, according to Turgot, trade between America and the sugar colonies (of all nations) already occurred in the form of smuggling, and America would not have to conquer these colonies in order to dispose of excess production. The Americans would merely have to “open their ports to all nations, who would hasten to bring them everything they needed in exchange for their superfluous goods.”
The second argument was based on three factors which have traditionally been considered part of the value of owning colonies: 1. The price advantage gained by the owning country selling goods to the colony at a higher price and securing raw materials from the colony at a lower one; 2. The economic value that exclusive access to trade with the colony that accrues to the owning country’s trader class; 3. The power that colonial ownership projects (the one non-economic factor he cited). I will avoid going into all the pedantic and technical detail but suffice to say Turgot refuted all three. “Wise and happy,” he concluded, “will be the nation which first will know how to bend its policy to the new circumstances, which will agree to see in its colonies only allied provinces, and no longer subject to the metropolis [owning country]!” However, the revolution he foresaw in the perception of the colonial model would take place much later, and unfortunately only after much additional suffering and bloodshed around the world. The American Revolution would provide inspiration for some of these colonial revolts but would not bring an expeditious end to the colonial model.
The American Revolution, which Turgot thought the colonists would eventually win, even without French and/or Spanish help, would “force everyone to recognize this truth, and has corrected the European nations from the jealousy of trade, there will be one less great cause of war among men, and it is very difficult not to desire an event which must do this good to the human race.” While he thought this would be yet another world-changing impact of the Revolution, he saw the British as being one of the last to recognize his view on colonial ownership, writing, “It is not probable that the English will be the first to leave the prejudices which they have long regarded as the source of their greatness. In that case there can be no doubt that their obstinacy will lead to the union of their sugar colonies with those of the northern continent.” Spain would also have difficulty letting go, finding it “less easy than any other power to leave a road it has been following for two centuries, in order to form a brand-new system adapted to a new order of things.”
Vergennes cited these four possible outcomes and envisioned each as justifying an alliance with the Americans. Further, he dangled the proposal of going on the offensive, invading the British mainland while the British were otherwise occupied in North America. Turgot also turned to this in his own Reflections and argued against it. His three main reasons were the sad state of French finances (running at a twenty million livres), the equally sad state of the French Navy (which even combined with Spain did not yet not have the firepower to overcome even a distracted Britain), and the worry that such an action would serve to unite the British and Americans, resulting in a reconciliation, to the disadvantage of France. For these reasons and others (primarily logistical), the invasion of England was aborted.
Having (in his view) proved folly the unwise aspects of Vergennes’ case, did Turgot have anything to offer in terms of positive recommendations? He did offer ideas, consisting primarily of the following:
- “[T]he accurate and vigilant observation of events and of the designs and preparations of Great Britain.”
- “The letter of the Marquis de Grimaldi announces the measures that Spain is taking to watch over everything that may enter the Gulf of Mexico.”
- A “safe and faithful correspondence in the English colonies, so as to be always informed of events and of the present disposition of minds. This article is delicate because it would, I believe, be dangerous to have an agent who would appear to be authorized.”
- Providing military supplies to the Americans, rationalizing the turning of a blind eye to neutrality by saying “Our traders are free to sell to anyone who buys from them. We do not distinguish between the settlers and the English themselves.”
- Quietly rebuilding French forces (especially the navy) for readiness (the Spanish were doing the same). “We must therefore be prepared at that moment: either to defend, if possible, our possessions in the event that they are attacked, or to attack our enemy ourselves, taking away part of his resources, and at least forcing him to recall part of his forces for his own defense.” Given France’s already precarious financial situation, however, this would require some creative financing, financing that Turgot would not be around to arrange.
When all was said and done, Turgot lost both the debate and his job (to a much more accommodating finance minister, Jacques Necker). Vergennes won the battle for the King’s support, and the Franco-American alliance won the war. The fortunes of France itself would not turn out quite so well. The war was, as Turgot predicted, financially ruinous, by one estimate costing France over one billion livres. As historian Jonathan Dull writes, “In a very real sense Britain came out of the American Revolution a winner, France a loser,” with its own much more ruinous revolution not far down the road. Additionally, America’s relationship with France was soon on the wane, while Britain’s strengthened, especially as far as trade. Perhaps the peace route would have tuned out differently, but for Vergennes, as historian Jonathan Dull puts it:
Peace . . . was not a live option. Herein lies the essential difference in the perceptions of Vergennes and Turgot. If Turgot could have persuaded Louis XVI and Vergennes that peace, not war was a necessity if the monarchy was to survive, the history of Louis XVI’s reign would have been very different. But Vergennes never saw peace with England in this light. The area of his professional concern became, therefore, strategic: when and under what conditions could France best fight the war?
On the other hand, America, whose independence Turgot had long foreseen, had a bright future: In a letter written late in his life, he noted, “It is impossible not to wish ardently that this people may attain to all the prosperity of which they are capable. They are the hope of the world . . . The Asylum they open to the oppressed of all nations should console the earth.”
H.A Scott Trask, “What Brought on the French Revolution?,” Von Mises Institute, mises.org/library/what-brought-french-revolution.
Charlemagne Tower, The Marquis de Lafayette in the American Revolution (Philadelphia, J.D Lippincott Company, 1895), 1: 93. This volume (in English) has the full texts of both Vergennes’ Reflections and Considerations.
From a French version of this document from the book Oeuvres de Turgot (see note 10). It was translated to English via the Microsoft Word translation program.
Turgot, Radical Reform Approach, courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-worldhistory2/chapter/efforts-at-financial-reform/.
Tower, The Marquis de Lafayette in the American Revolution, 108.
Gustave Schelle, Oeuvres de Turgot et documents le concernant, avec biographie et notes, Volume 5 (Paris: Felix Alcan, 1923), 386, babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.$b810956&view=1up&seq=433. This book is in French. Translations used in this article were done via DeepL Translator. Where clarification was needed, Microsoft translation was also consulted.
Tower, The Marquis de Lafayette in the American Revolution, 108.
Edward S. Corwin, The French Objective in the American Revolution, The American Historical Review, Vol. 21, No. 1 (October 1915), 36.
Schelle, Oeuvres de Turgot, 387.
Tower, The Marquis de Lafayette in the American Revolution, 109.
Schelle, Oeuvres de Turgot, 391.
Tower, The Marquis de Lafayette in the American Revolution, 108.
Schelle, Oeuvres de Turgot, 391.
Tower, The Marquis de Lafayette in the American Revolution, 94.
Schelle, Oeuvres de Turgot, 392.
Larrie D. Ferreiro, Brothers at Arms (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), 90
Jonathan Dull, The French Navy and American Independence (Princeton,NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), 350.
Jonathan Dull, France and the American Revolution Seen as Tragedy, published as part of the book Diplomacy and Revolution: The Franco-American Alliance of 1778 (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1981), 90.
Ferreiro, Brothers at Arms, 307-308.
Dull, France and the American Revolution Seen as Tragedy, 120.
Turgot to Richard Price, March 22, 1778, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org/title/1788.
Richard, an excellent article and great example of analysis in the field of Diplomatic History. Thank you.
It’s lonely being a prophet. Turgot was on both sides of Edmund Burke’s later observation that a “state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” His attempts to modernize a decrepit, bankrupt state succeeded in nothing beyond earning him the enmity of everyone in the commanding heights of French society, a cohort who could do nothing to stave off the total destruction of the ancien regime that was accelerated by France’s financial support for the American war effort. Thank you for this article.