February 6 Deserves Salute
February 6 deserves at the very least a respectful nod. The United States would not have become the United States had that day’s event 241 years ago not happened.
France and the American colonies were bitter enemies. France owned all the lands bordering the colonies, from Canada to the Mississippi River basin. The feud between France and England was deep. The likelihood France and the colonies would partner was near nil.
Almost overnight everything changed.
France lost the French and Indian War in 1763, a humiliating defeat which required her to forfeit Canada and the Mississippi River Valley to England.
Comte de Vergennes, diplomat of the age, became French Foreign Minister in July, 1774, and immediately discussed with Spain the possibility of recognizing American independence and opening ports to American shipping. Vergennes wanted to restore the balance of power in Europe, reclaim honor lost in the French and Indian War, and capture commerce with 2,000,000 Americans.
Vergennes, authorized by King Louis XVI, funneled one million livres to America through a firm established for the purpose, Roderigue Hortalez and Company; two months later Spain, prompted by Vergennes, contributed another million. Vergennes opened French ports to American shipping, and defied Britain’s demand to stop and search French ships for contraband, both openly hostile acts.
In June, 1776, Richard Henry Lee made the motion, “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states.”
On August 16, 1776, Vergennes proposed to Spain that the two side with America against England. Spain was not ready.
On December 28, 1776, Vergennes promised American commissioners 2 million livres for the cause, the first installment of which was paid January 17, 1777.
Twice more in early 1777 Vergennes invited Spain to join France and fight with Americans.
By the close of 1777, France had supplied America with 2 ¼ million pounds of gunpowder. Victory at Saratoga, October 17, 1777, was a direct consequence.
On December 3, 1777, Vergennes notified Madrid that France intended to ally with America, with or without Spain.
On December 6, Louis XVI authorized negotiation for a treaty of alliance with America; the next day Vergennes invited the American commissioners to make a formal proposal of alliance.
On December 11, Vergennes made his final appeal to Spain. The reply December 31, 1777: no. Spain would supply money.
Vergennes did not hesitate. He instructed his minister Conrad Gerard to treat with America, beginning January 9, 1778.
On February 6, 1778, Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, Arthur Lee, and Gerard signed not one but three treaties.
The first was a Treaty of Amity and Commerce.
The second was a Treaty of Alliance.
The third was a secret treaty allowing Spain the option to join.
The Alliance has no equal in diplomatic annals. An ancient regime steeped in tradition gave an upstart equal footing, and even when America defaulted on principal and interest at the start, France did not press.
February 6, 1778, says historian Samuel Flagg Bemis, “brought independence.”