In these days of overheated rhetoric that threatens domestic tranquility and international arrangements alike, I’m reminded of instances of intemperate words causing crises in the foreign alliance that President Donald Trump recently referred to as America’s oldest -- with France during the Revolutionary War – but when American leaders kept their cool and managed to save our country in its infancy.
In July 1778, five months after the Franco-American alliance had been signed, a French fleet under Admiral Charles Hector, Comte d’Estaing came to America. It arrived to great cheers, but almost immediately had two military disasters, first abandoning a promising naval assault on New York City because the Sandy Hook sandbar was supposedly too high to cross, and then, in conjunction with an American land force under General John Sullivan, botching an invasion of Newport. Recriminations on both sides ensued, featuring some very insulting language by Sullivan. The alliance teetered. The Marquis de Lafayette, a distant cousin of d’Estaing’s, became so incensed that he offered to defend d’Estaing’s honor with his sword.
It was up to George Washington to save the day. He started the process by writing to Lafayette:
I feel myself hurt also at every illiberal and unthinking reflection which may have been cast upon Count d’Estaing …. In a free & Republican government … every Man will speak as he thinks, or more properly without thinking – Consequently will judge of Effects without attending to the Causes. It is in the nature of Man to be displeased with every thing that disappoints a favourite hope, or flattering project, and it is the folly of too many of them, to condemn without investigating circumstances.
Lafayette calmed down. Washington’s sentiments prevailed -- Congress issued a letter of thanks to d’Estaing for showing up and trying, and the admiral promised to return next year and do better. He did return in 1779, but did even worse in trying to recapture Savannah.
By late 1779, the American cause was at a low point. John Adams, in Paris with Congressional instructions making him the sole American authorized to negotiate for peace, was so repeatedly rude to the Comte de Vergennes, the French foreign minister, that Vergennes refused to deal with him and all but banished him to the Netherlands. Franklin then had to salvage the alliance and assure continued French support. After getting hold of Adams’ precise instructions from Congress, Franklin apologized profusely to Vergennes, calling those instructions “so different from the Language held by Mr. Adams [that] it is impossible that his Conduct … should be approved by his Constituents.” The foreign minister pronounced himself mollified, and consented the next spring to send a substantial force to America, led by General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau.
On August 14, 1781 another crisis arose. For nearly five years Washington had been advocating that the best way – maybe the only way -- to end the war was to recapture New York City and its resident British army. He held to that objective over the past year even though Rochambeau had repeatedly refused to have his army and accompanying ships take part in such an attack, believing the combined Franco-American forces unequal to it. As a war-ending target, Rochambeau preferred the British enclave at Yorktown, and he had been secretly working toward that objective, conveying his sentiments to Admiral Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse, in command of a sizable French fleet then in the Caribbean.
Rochambeau had moved his army to the Hudson River and joined with Washington – who expected them to shortly attack New York together – when they received a letter from de Grasse advising them that he was going to the Yorktown peninsula. Washington was so upset that he might have been forgiven had he let loose his well know and justly-feared temper.
Instead, Washington demonstrated his strengths as a leader by pivoting immediately to Yorktown and thereafter wholly devoting his considerable energies to coordinating nearly every detail of six different American and French forces that would converge on the peninsula and win the ultimately deciding battle of the American Revolution.
In the fall of 1782, the Paris peace negotiations were stuck in a rut. Negotiators Franklin and John Jay had not been making much headway with the British. The third negotiator, Adams, summoned back from the Netherlands, arrived spoiling for fights with Vergennes and Franklin. But he soon saw that he needed to put past hurts aside and work, primarily with Jay, to make progress. And they did, enough so that at a Franco-American dinner, Adams received two compliments: Vergennes seated Adams in a place of honor, next to Mme. Vergennes – they chatted amiably – and a French nobleman said to him, “Vous êtes le Washington de la negociations.” (You are the Washington of the negotiations.) Adams repeated that line to his diary, and then admitted to it that “the compliment belongs to Mr. Jay.” The realization made him work even harder. Within days, the deals were made to assure American independence and borders that would allow the future expansion of the country.
Thereafter the Franco-American alliance faded, but it had been held together during crises by true leaders who shrugged off exacerbating rhetoric and kept their focus on their shared task, the independence and future greatness of the United States of America.
TOM SHACHTMAN has written or co-authored more than thirty books, as well as award-winning documentaries seen on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and the BBC, and has taught at New York University and lectured at Harvard, Stanford, and Georgia Tech. He is a former chairman of The Writers Room in Manhattan and was a trustee of the Connecticut Humanities Council and a founding director of the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area.