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5 Ways the French Helped Win the American Revolution

September 9, 2020 in History

By Suzanne McGee

The Marquis de Lafayette was only the beginning.

How crucial were the French to helping colonists win the American Revolution?

An iconic oil painting of the British surrender at Yorktown, now hanging in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, perfectly captures the partnership. As the grim, resigned British general at the picture’s center prepares to hand over his sword, he is flanked on one side by an array of Americans, underneath a waving Stars and Stripes flag—and on the other by French officers and volunteers, beneath the white and gold banner of France’s Bourbon monarchs.

Artist John Trumbull’s decision to portray the two forces as equal combatants against the British signals how much America’s founding fathers owed to the French in their battle for independence. The decision by Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier (better known as the Marquis de Lafayette) to leave France and enlist with George Washington’s forces is well-known to many. But Lafayette was only a prelude to massive French support, the forerunner of a deep relationship that proved vital to the revolution’s success. Here are five ways the French helped Americans win their freedom.

1. They provided ideological underpinnings.

Patrick Henry delivering his famous speech on the Rights of the Colonies, before the Virginia Assembly, convened at Richmond, March 23, 1775.

“Give me liberty or give me death!” Patrick Henry’s forceful declaration to the Second Virginia Convention in March 1775, proved a tipping point, convincing his fellow delegates—including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson—to vote in favor of committing Virginian troops to the looming revolutionary battle. Henry’s rhetoric echoed the writings of French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who opened his influential 1762 work, The Social Contract, with the words “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.”

By the 1760s, the founding fathers and their peers eagerly devoured French political philosophy. “It became almost a patriotic duty for colonists to admire France as a counterpoise to an increasingly hostile England,” wrote historian Lawrence Kaplan of Kent State University. The British may have triumphed militarily over their French rivals in the global conflict known as the Seven Years’ War. But America’s future founders disparaged the way the British (in their eyes) trampled on their own constitution, turning instead to France for new ideas about freedom and independence.

Rousseau, for one, spoke of sovereignty residing not in a monarch, but in the …read more


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