Reading French Sources for a Better Understanding of the American Revolution – Leïla Tnaïnchi

Seeing the American Revolution through French eyes allows historians to have a more global understanding of this major event. The French correspondence of Benjamin Franklin and the archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs offer us many details about launching the United States as a sovereign state. These sources help us to understand the difficulties American commissioners Benjamin Franklin, Arthur Lee, John Adams, and John Jay faced, their strategies, their successes, and their failures. The documents also demonstrate the commissioners’ real impact on the war and on French perceptions of Americans and the young United States.

Figure 1. Each American commissioner developed a different relationship with Vergennes, which sometimes proved to be very conflictual. Benjamin Franklin, Arthur Lee, and John Adams to Charles Gravier de Vergennes, April 19, 1778. Document, Archives of the Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of La Courneuve, Correspondance politique, États-Unis, vol. III, f. 207 v. Photo by Author.

Franklin’s correspondence and the archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs also help us to better understand the central role that Charles Gravier de Vergennes, Secretary for Foreign Affairs, played in the war. His letters and those of his subordinates provide an outside perspective on both the Founders and U.S. Congress. Moreover, Vergennes’ influence and his unwavering desire to help the Americans defeat the British armed forces explain the significant aid France provided to its allies – in spite of the diplomatic mistakes Congress and the commissioners made and the misunderstandings between the two governments. The letters reveal the beginnings of American diplomacy and the establishment of the first American Department of Foreign Affairs. For example, Conrad Alexandre Gérard, the first official French envoy to the United States, explained in his letters to Vergennes how members of Congress debated for days the correct way to organize his ceremony of introduction. It was important for them to get it right as it was the first official diplomatic act in the new republic’s history.

Figure 2. Conrad Alexandre Gérard, first official French envoy to the United States, shared his information with Vergennes but also his personal opinion on Congress. Conrad Alexandre Gérard to Charles Gravier de Vergennes, August 16, 1778. Document, Archives of the Ministry of the Foreign Affairs of La Courneuve, Correspondance politique, États-Unis, Suppléments, vol. III, f. 39 v. Photo by Author.

Thanks to these sources, historians can also better understand the first allies of the United States, the French subjects who belonged to the first government to recognize U.S. independence and sovereignty. Franklin’s correspondence allows us to qualify the interest of French military men for the American cause – which was one of my aims in writing “Correspondence: The American Revolution as Mirror of a Military Crisis” in the special issue of EAS. It also helps us to better understand the personal and financial investment French people made in the conflict, their motivations for doing so, and their vision of the United States and the Revolution. Moreover, this correspondence conveys much information beyond the American Revolution’s politics. We learn, for example, about the acceleration of the scientific and technical exchanges between the United States and France beginning with Franklin’s arrival in France in December 1776. Finally, while a French perspective can help us to better understand the American Revolution, the Revolution also allows us to comprehend the situation of other countries in the period. As I demonstrate in my EAS article, French reactions to this conflict teach us a great deal about the subjects of Louis XVI and, in general, about Ancien Régime France.

Leïla Tnaïnchi holds a French Ph.D. in history. She studies late eighteenth-century French people and their relationships, real or fantasized, with Benjamin Franklin. Currently, she is a Research Associate in the Université de Franche-Comté (France). Her Ph.D. dissertation is titled “La correspondance de Benjamin Franklin, psyché de la France d’Ancien Régime (1776-1790).” She published “Benjamin Franklin francophile ou l’état ultime du cosmopolitisme” in Lumen, Selected Proceedings from the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 38 (2019), 117-142 and “Géographie d’une célébrité: la franklin mania dans les provinces françaises (1776-1790),” in XVII-XVIII, Revue de la Société d’études anglo-américaines des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, 79 (2022), on line:

Read Tnaïnchi’s article “French Volunteers in Benjamin Franklin’s Correspondence: The American Revolution as Mirror of a Military Crisis in EAS’s Winter 2024 issue.